The Secondary Immunodeficiency


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OpenStax Microbiology

secondary immunodeficiency occurs as a result an acquired impairment of function of B cells, T cells, or both. Secondary immunodeficiencies can be caused by:

  • Systemic disorders such as diabetes mellitus, malnutrition, hepatitis, or HIV infection
  • Immunosuppressive treatments such as cytotoxic chemotherapy, bone marrow ablation before transplantation, or radiation therapy
  • Prolonged critical illness due to infection, surgery, or trauma in the very young, elderly, or hospitalized patients

Unlike primary immunodeficiencies, which have a genetic basis, secondary immunodeficiencies are often reversible if the underlying cause is resolved. Patients with secondary immunodeficiencies develop an increased susceptibility to an otherwise benign infection by opportunistic pathogens such as Candida spp., P. jirovecii, and Cryptosporidium.

HIV infection and the associated acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) are the best-known secondary immunodeficiencies. AIDS is characterized by profound CD4 T-cell lymphopenia (decrease in lymphocytes). The decrease in CD4 T cells is the result of various mechanisms, including HIV-induced pyroptosis (a type of apoptosis that stimulates an inflammatory response), viral cytopathic effect, and cytotoxicity to HIV-infected cells.

The most common cause of secondary immunodeficiency worldwide is severe malnutrition, which affects both innate and adaptive immunity. More research and information are needed for the more common causes of secondary immunodeficiency; however, the number of new discoveries in AIDS research far exceeds that of any other single cause of secondary immunodeficiency. AIDS research has paid off extremely well in terms of discoveries and treatments; increased research into the most common cause of immunodeficiency, malnutrition, would likely be as beneficial.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: