Case of the Month

August 2015

Dr Jeremy Nel, Dept of Infectious Diseases, Helen Joseph Hospital

A 28-year-old man presented at a local district hospital complaining of a chronic cough (> 1 month duration) with associated right-sided pleuritic chest pain, anorexia and weight loss. A chest X-ray showed a right-sided pleural effusion. An intercostal drain was inserted, and the pleural fluid taken before antibiotics were commenced, showed:

Pleural fluid cytology revealed no malignant or mesothelial cells. A second chest X-ray, taken after the intercostal drain insertion, additionally showed a right pneumothorax, revealed after drainage of several litres of purulent fluid.

His blood tests on admission were as follows:

Question 1: What is the differential diagnosis of a chronic exudative pleural effusion, considering the negative Gram stain and routine bacterial culture?

Answer to Q1

A chronic, exudative pleural effusion with a negative Gram stain and routine bacterial culture, should prompt the following differential diagnosis, amongst other things:

Note: some of the above may be cultured on routine bacterial culture (e.g. Nocardia) although the sensitivity for their detection by this method is low, and therefore they should remain considerations at this stage.

A CT scan of the chest revealed a significant residual right pneumothorax (despite the intercostal drain), and collapse/consolidation of all 3 lobes of the right lung, with mediastinal shift to the left:

An alert clinician noted that the fluid, while grossly purulent, had an unusual brown-orange colour (see picture below) and was odourless.

Question 2: An ‘empyema’ that looks like this is virtually pathognomonic for which diagnosis?

Answer to Q2

The pleural fluid shown has the appearance of “anchovy paste”, and this is virtually pathognomonic for amoebiasis.

The “anchovy paste” appearance is the result of a combination of necrotic and apoptotic material, and haemolysis of red cells that have bled into the cavity.

Question 3: Which is the most appropriate diagnostic test that can be performed to confirm this diagnosis?

Answer to Q3

The most appropriate diagnostic test at this stage would be serology for amoebiasis.

More than 95% of both amoebic liver abscesses and thoracic amoebiasis develop detectable antibodies. Such testing may be performed by indirect haemagglutination assays (IHA) or ELISA assays .

Microscopy may demonstrate trophozoites from aspirated material, but sensitivity is poor.

Antigen testing and molecular diagnostics (PCR) on aspirated material are both highly sensitive and, especially in the case of PCR, highly specific. However, they are expensive and generally limited to reference laboratories in Southern Africa. In the context of this case, they would be unlikely to add anything to serology, which is much cheaper and more readily available.

Question 4: Primary amoebic empyemas are very rare. Where else should one look in the body to see if there is another (primary) focus of infection?

Answer to Q4

The abdomen should be scanned to look for a ruptured amoebic liver abscess. Almost all amoebic empyemas are the result of such an event1.

Although both an abdominal ultrasound and a contrasted abdominal CT scan were initially reported as normal, alert infectious diseases doctors insisted on a review of the scans.

Question 5: In the cuts from the abdominal CT scan above, what do you see?

Answer to Q5

The subtle defects circled below show a ruptured, healing abscess, situated immediately below the diaphragm. This is precisely the location where abscesses that rupture into the pleural space are most likely to be found.

Question 6: How should amoebic liver abscesses and amoebic empyemas be treated?

Answer to Q6

In general, extra-intestinal amoebiasis requires both3:

  • A tissue agent (e.g. metronidazole 750 mg three times daily for 7-10 days): to eradicate the abscess.
  • A luminal agent (e.g. paromomycin, or diloxanide – note: not registered in South Africa currently): to clear any remnant intraluminal cysts from the intestine, even if stool microscopy is negative.

Surgical drainage is generally not required for amoebic abscesses as an excellent response to therapy can be anticipated2.

Outcome of the Case

Our patient required decortication of the lung, as it failed to re-expand despite both the insertion of an intercostal drain & appropriately-provided negative suction pressure to the pleura. He made a full recovery after the combined medical and surgical therapy however.

Lessons learned
  • Amoebic empyemas and abscesses have a unique “Anchovy paste” appearance.
  • Almost all amoebic empyemas are the result of rupture of a hepatic amoebic abscess into the pleural space. A liver abscess should be actively sought in the case of an amoebic empyema.
  • Surgical drainage is generally not required for amoebic empyemas or abscesses due to their excellent response to medical therapy.


  1. Peterson KM, Singh U, Petri WA Jr. Enteric amebiasis. In: Tropical infectious diseases: Principles, pathogens, and practice, 3rd ed, Guerrant R, Walker DH, Weller PF (Eds), Saunders Elsevier, Philadelphia 2011. p.614
  2. Petri WA, Haque R. Entamoeba species, including amebic colitis and liver abscess. In: Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 8th ed, Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser M (Eds), Saunders Elsevier, Philadelphia 2015.
  3. Leder, K., & Weller, P. (2014, December 9). Extraintestinal Entamoeba histolytica amebiasis. UpToDate. Retrieved July 5, 2015.

Earn CPD Points


FIDSSA Members can earn CPD points by logging into the secure section of the website and visiting the MyCPD section.