Infection with Entamoeba histolytica, the protozoan parasite that causes amoebic
colitis and liver abscess, results in 34 million to 50 million symptomatic cases
of amoebiasis (all illnesses caused by E. histolytica, including amoebic dysentery)
worldwide each year, causing 40 thousand to 100 thousand deaths annually. As
a result of accruing biochemical, genetic and immunological data, E. histolytica
was re-defined in 1993 to recognise the existence of two morphologically identical
but genetically distinct human parasites: E. histolytica, the aetiological agent
of invasive intestinal and extraintestinal amoebiasis, and Entamoeba dispar,
a non-pathogenic intestinal parasite. Because microscopy is unable to distinguish
between these two organisms, it should no longer be relied upon to diagnose
amoebiasis. Sensitive and specific molecular techniques that are able to distinguish
E. histolytica from E. dispar have been developed recently; they include (1)
the detection of an E. histolytica antigen using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent
assay (ELISA), (2) the use of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify
amoebic DNA, and (3) the culture of stool samples followed by isoenzyme analysis.
Of these three test methods, only antigen detection using ELISA can be performed
rapidly and easily, making it the diagnostic test method of choice for clinical
use in the developing world, where the morbidity and mortality caused by E.
histolytica are greatest. However, the PCR method is a powerful tool for the
genetic typing of different amoebic strains. Together these two methods should
result in both improved clinical diagnosis and treatment of amoebiasis, and
a greater understanding of the epidemiology of E. histolytica. Such knowledge
will not only assist public health efforts to control amoebiasis, but also facilitate
the careful testing of the anti-amoebic vaccines that are currently being developed.