Familial Mediterranean fever
Familial Mediterranean fever (FMF) is an inherited disorder of the inflammatory response characterized by recurring attacks of fever, accompanied by intense pain in the abdomen, chest, or joints. Attacks usually last 12–72 hours, and can occasionally involve a skin rash. Kidney disease is a serious concern if the disorder is not treated. FMF is most prevalent in people of Armenian, Sephardic-Jewish, Arabic, and Turkish ancestry.
FMF could be described as a disorder of "inappropriate" inflammation. That is, an event that in a normal situation causes a mild or unnoticeable inflammation might cause a severe inflammatory response in someone with FMF. Certain areas of the body are at risk for FMF-related symptoms. A serosa is a serous (fluid-producing) membrane that can be found inside the abdominal cavity (peritoneum), around the lungs (pleura), around the heart (pericardium), and inside the joints (synovium). The symptoms of FMF are due to inflammation of one or more of the serosal membranes (serositis). Thus, FMF is also sometimes called recurrent polyserositis.
During an attack, large numbers of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, move into the affected areas causing painful inflammation and fever. These episodes may be accompanied by a skin rash or joint pain. In a few cases, chronic arthritis is a problem. Amyloidosis is a potentially serious condition in which proteins called amyloids are mistakenly produced and deposited in organs and tissues throughout the body. Left untreated, amyloidosis often leads to kidney failure, which is the major long-term health risk in FMF.
In most cases, the attacks of fever and pain are first noticed in childhood or adolescence. The interval between these episodes may be days or months, and is not predictable. However, during these intervals people with FMF typically lead normal lives. It is not entirely clear what brings on an attack, but people with FMF often report mild physical trauma, physical exertion, or emotional stress just prior to the onset of symptoms. Treatment for FMF involves an oral medication called colchicine, which is highly effective for the episodes of fever and pain, as well as for amyloidosis and the kidney disease that can result from it.
FMF is most common in certain ethnic groups from the eastern Mediterranean region, but cases in other ethnic groups in other parts of the world are increasingly being reported. FMF is also known by many other names. They include: recurrent hereditary polyserositis, benign paroxysmal peritonitis, familial paroxysmal polyserositis, paroxysmal polyserositis, familial recurrent polyserositis, periodic fever, periodic amyloid syndrome, periodic peritonitis syndrome, Reimann periodic disease, Reimann syndrome, Siegel-Cattan-Mamou syndrome, and Armenian syndrome.
FMF is a genetic condition inherited in an autosomal recessive fashion. Mutations in the MEFV gene (short for Mediterranean Fever) on chromosome number 16 are the underlying cause of FMF. Autosomal recessive inheritance implies that a person with FMF has mutations in both copies of the MEFV gene. All genes come in pairs, and one copy of each pair is inherited from each parent. If neither parent of a child with FMF has the condition, it means they carry one mutated copy of the MEFV gene, but also one normal copy, which is enough to protect them from disease. If both parents carry the same autosomal recessive gene, there is a one in four chance in each pregnancy that the child will inherit both recessive genes, and thus have the condition.
The MEFV gene carries the instructions for production of a protein called pyrin, named for pyrexia, a medical term for fever. The research group in France that co-discovered the protein named it marenostrin, after ancient Latin words that referred to the Mediterranean Sea. The movement of neutrophils into an area of the body where trauma or infection has occurred is the major cause of inflammation, which is a normal process. Research has shown that pyrin has some function in controlling neutrophils. In a situation where minor trauma or stress occurs, some initial inflammation may follow, but a functional pyrin protein is responsible for shutting-down the response of neutrophils once they are no longer needed. An abnormal pyrin protein associated with FMF may be partly functional, but unstable. In some instances, the abnormal pyrin itself seems to be "stressed," and loses its ability to regulate neutrophils and inflammation. Left unregulated, a normal, mild inflammation spirals out of control. Exactly what causes pyrin in FMF to lose its ability to control neutrophils in some situations is not known.
Estimates of the incidence of FMF in specific eastern Mediterranean populations range from one in 2,000 to one in 100, depending on the population studied. Specific mutations in the MEFV gene are more common in certain ethnic groups, and may cause a somewhat different course of the disease. A few mutations in the MEFV gene likely became common in a small population in the eastern Mediterranean several thousand years ago. It is postulated that carrying a single copy of a mutated gene produced a modified (but not abnormal) inflammatory response that may have been protective against some infectious agent at that time. Those who carried a single "beneficial" mutation in the MEFV gene were more likely to survive and reproduce, which may explain the high carrier frequency (up to one in five) in some populations. People of Armenian, Sephardic-Jewish, Arabic, and Turkish ancestry are at greatest risk for FMF. However, a better understanding and recognition of the symptoms of FMF in recent years has resulted in more reports of the condition in other ethnic groups, such as Italians and Armenian-Americans.
Signs and symptoms
The recurrent acute attacks of FMF typically begin in childhood or adolescence. Episodes of fever and painful inflammation usually last 12–72 hours. About 90% of people with FMF have their first attack by age 20. The group of symptoms that characterizes FMF includes the following:
An FMF attack is nearly always accompanied by a fever, but it may not be noticed in every case. Fevers are typically 100–104°F (38–40°C). Some people experience chills prior to the onset of fever.
Nearly all people with FMF experience abdominal pain at one point or another, and for most it is the most common complaint. The pain can range from mild to
Pleuritis, also called pleurisy, occurs in up to half of the affected individuals in certain ethnic groups. The pain is usually on one side of the chest. Pericarditis would also be felt as chest pain.
About 50% of people with FMF experience joint pain during attacks. The pain is usually confined to one joint at a time, and often involves the hip, knee, or ankle. For some people, however, the recurrent joint pain becomes chronic arthritis.
Up to 20% of individuals report muscle pain. These episodes typically last less than two days, and tend to occur in the evening or after physical exertion. Rare cases of muscle pain and fever lasting up to one month have been reported.
A rash, described as erysipelas-like erythema, accompanies attacks in a minority of people, and most often occurs on the front of the lower leg or top of the foot. The rash appears as a red, warm, swollen area about 4–6 in (10–15 cm) in diameter.
FMF is associated with high levels in the blood of a protein called serum amyloid A (SAA). Over time, excess SAA tends to be deposited in tissues and organs throughout the body. The presence and deposition of excess SAA is known as amyloidosis. Amyloidosis may affect the gastrointestinal tract, liver, spleen, heart, and testes, but effects on the kidneys are of greatest concern. The frequency of amyloidosis varies among the different ethnic groups, and its overall incidence is difficult to determine because of the use of colchicine to avert the problem. Left untreated, however, those individuals who do develop amyloidosis of the kidneys may require a renal transplant, or may even die of renal failure. The frequency and severity of a person's attacks of fever and serositis seem to have no relation to whether they will develop amyloidosis. In fact, a few people with FMF have been described who have had amyloidosis but apparently no other FMF-related symptoms.
A small percentage of boys with FMF develop painful inflammation around the testes. Headaches are a common occurrence during attacks, and certain types of vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) seem to be more common in FMF.
Individually, the symptoms that define FMF are common. Fevers occur for many reasons, and nonspecific pains in the abdomen, chest, and joints are also frequent ailments. Several infections can result in symptoms similar to FMF (Mallaret meningitis, for instance), and many people with FMF undergo exploratory abdominal surgery and ineffective treatments before they are finally diagnosed. Membership in a less commonly affected ethnic group may delay or hinder the correct diagnosis.
In general, symptoms involving one or more of the following broad groups should lead to suspicion of FMF: Unexplained recurrent fevers, polyserositis, skin rash, and/or joint pain; abnormal blood studies (see below); and renal or other disease associated with amyloidosis. A family history of FMF or its symptoms would obviously be an important clue, but the recessive nature of FMF means there usually is no family history. The diagnosis may be confirmed when a person with unexplained fever and pain responds to treatment with colchicine since colchicine is not known to have a beneficial effect on any other condition similar to FMF. Abnormal results on a blood test typically include leukocytosis (elevated number of neutrophils in the blood), an increased erythrocyte sedimentation rate (rate at which red blood cells form a sediment in a blood sample), and increased levels of proteins associated with inflammation (called acute phase reactants) such as SAA.
Direct analysis of the MEFV gene for FMF mutations is the only method to be certain of the diagnosis. However, it is not yet possible to detect all MEFV gene mutations that might cause FMF. Thus, if DNA analysis is negative, clinical methods must be relied upon. If both members of a couple were proven to be FMF carriers through genetic testing, highly accurate prenatal diagnosis would be available in any subsequent pregnancy.
Similar syndromes of periodic fever and inflammation include familial Hibernian fever and hyperimmunoglobulinemia D syndrome, but both are more rare than FMF.
Treatment and management
Colchicine is a chemical compound that can be used as a medication, and is frequently prescribed for gout. Some
Other medications may be used as needed to deal with the pain and fever associated with FMF attacks. Dialysis and/or renal transplant might become necessary in someone with advanced kidney disease. Given its genetic nature, there is no cure for FMF, nor is there likely to be in the near future. Any couple that has a child diagnosed with FMF, or anyone with a family history of the condition (especially those in high-risk ethnic groups), should be offered genetic counseling to obtain the most up-to-date information on FMF and testing options.
For those individuals who are diagnosed early enough and take colchicine consistently, the prognosis is excellent. Most will have very few, if any, attacks of fever and polyserositis, and will likely not develop serious complications of amyloidosis. The problem of misdiagnosing FMF continues, but education attempts directed at both the public and medical care providers should improve the situation. Future research should provide a better understanding of the inflammation process, focusing on how neutrophils are genetically regulated. That information could then be used to develop treatments for FMF with fewer side effects, and might also assist in developing therapies for other diseases in which abnormal inflammation and immune response are a problem.
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Scott J. Polzin, MS, CGC