In a cluster randomized trial, Kojo Yeboah-Antwi and colleagues find that integrated management of malaria and pneumonia in children under five by community health workers is both feasible and effective.
Pneumonia and malaria, two of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality among children under five in Zambia, often have overlapping clinical manifestations. Zambia is piloting the use of artemether-lumefantrine (AL) by community health workers (CHWs) to treat uncomplicated malaria. Valid concerns about potential overuse of AL could be addressed by the use of malaria rapid diagnostics employed at the community level. Currently, CHWs in Zambia evaluate and treat children with suspected malaria in rural areas, but they refer children with suspected pneumonia to the nearest health facility. This study was designed to assess the effectiveness and feasibility of using CHWs to manage nonsevere pneumonia and uncomplicated malaria with the aid of rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs).
Methods and Findings
Community health posts staffed by CHWs were matched and randomly allocated to intervention and control arms. Children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years were managed according to the study protocol, as follows. Intervention CHWs performed RDTs, treated test-positive children with AL, and treated those with nonsevere pneumonia (increased respiratory rate) with amoxicillin. Control CHWs did not perform RDTs, treated all febrile children with AL, and referred those with signs of pneumonia to the health facility, as per Ministry of Health policy. The primary outcomes were the use of AL in children with fever and early and appropriate treatment with antibiotics for nonsevere pneumonia. A total of 3,125 children with fever and/or difficult/fast breathing were managed over a 12-month period. In the intervention arm, 27.5% (265/963) of children with fever received AL compared to 99.1% (2066/2084) of control children (risk ratio 0.23, 95% confidence interval 0.14–0.38). For children classified with nonsevere pneumonia, 68.2% (247/362) in the intervention arm and 13.3% (22/203) in the control arm received early and appropriate treatment (risk ratio 5.32, 95% confidence interval 2.19–8.94). There were two deaths in the intervention and one in the control arm.
The potential for CHWs to use RDTs, AL, and amoxicillin to manage both malaria and pneumonia at the community level is promising and might reduce overuse of AL, as well as provide early and appropriate treatment to children with nonsevere pneumonia.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every year, about 11 million children die before their fifth birthday. Most of these deaths are in developing countries and most are due to a handful of causes—pneumonia (lung inflammation usually caused by an infection), malaria (a parasitic disease spread by mosquitoes), measles, diarrhea, and birth-related problems. In sub-Saharan Africa, pneumonia and malaria alone are responsible for nearly a third of deaths in young children. Both these diseases can be treated if caught early—pneumonia with antibiotics such as amoxicillin and malaria with artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), a treatment that contains several powerful antimalarial drugs. Unfortunately, parents in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa rarely have easy access to health facilities and sick children are often treated at home by community health workers (CHWs, individuals with some medical training who provide basic health care to their communities), drug sellers, and traditional healers. This situation means that ongoing global efforts to reduce child mortality will require innovative community level interventions if they are to succeed.
Why Was This Study Done?
One community level intervention that the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently recommended is integrated management of malaria and pneumonia in countries where these diseases are major childhood killers. One such country is Zambia. In rural areas of Zambia, CHWs treat suspected cases of uncomplicated (mild) malaria with artemether-lumefantrine (AL, an ACT) or with sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (a non-ACT antimalarial drug combination) and refer children with suspected pneumonia to the nearest health facility. However, because uncomplicated malaria and pneumonia both cause fever, many children are treated inappropriately. This misdiagnosis is worrying because giving antimalarial drugs to children with pneumonia delays their treatment with more appropriate drugs and increases the risk of drug-resistant malaria emerging. The use of rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) for malaria might be one way to improve the treatment of malaria and pneumonia by CHWs in Zambia. Here, the researchers investigate the feasibility and effectiveness of this approach in a cluster randomized controlled trial, a study that compares the outcomes of groups (clusters) of patients randomly allocated to different interventions.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers randomly allocated 31 community health posts (fixed locations where CHWs provide medical services to several villages) to the study's intervention and control arms. CHWs in the intervention arm did RDTs for malaria on all the children under 5 years old who presented with fever and/or difficult or fast breathing (symptoms of pneumonia), treated test-positive children with AL, and treated those with nonsevere pneumonia (an increased breathing rate) with amoxicillin. CHWs in the control arm did not use RDTs but treated all children with fever with AL and referred those with signs of pneumonia to the nearest health facility. About 3,000 children with fever were treated during the 12-month study. 99.1% of the children in the control arm received AL compared with 27.5% of the children in the intervention arm, a 4-fold reduction in treatment for malaria. Importantly, the CHWs in the intervention arm adhered to treatment guidelines and did not give AL to children with negative RDT results. Of the children classified with nonsevere pneumonia, 13.3% of those in the control arm received early and appropriate treatment with amoxicillin compared to 68.2% of those in the intervention arm, a 5-fold increase in the timely treatment for pneumonia.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that CHWs in Zambia are capable of using RDTs, AL, and amoxicillin to manage malaria and pneumonia. They show that the intervention tested in this study has the potential to reduce the overuse of AL and to provide early and appropriate treatment for nonsevere pneumonia. Although this approach needs to be tested in other settings, these findings suggest that the use of CHWs might be a feasible and effective way to provide integrated management of pneumonia and malaria at the community level in developing countries. Importantly, these results also support the evaluation of the treatment by CHWs of other major childhood diseases and raise the possibility of saving the lives of many children in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions of the world through community level interventions.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000340.
WHO provides information on malaria, on rapid diagnostic tests for malaria, on artemisinin-combination therapy, and on global child mortality and efforts to reduce it (in several languages); WHO also provides a country health profile for Zambia
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide information on malaria (in English and Spanish)
Kidshealth, a resource maintained by the not-for-profit Nemours Foundation (a not-for-profit organization for children's health), provides information for parents on pneumonia (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides links to additional information on malaria and on pneumonia (in English and Spanish)
More information about the Zambia Integrated Management of Malaria and Pneumonia Study is available