Clinical trials of interventions designed to prevent severe falciparum malaria in children require a clear endpoint. The internationally accepted definition of severe malaria is sensitive, and appropriate for clinical purposes. However, this definition includes individuals with severe nonmalarial disease and coincident parasitaemia, so may lack specificity in vaccine trials. Although there is no “gold standard” individual test for severe malaria, malaria-attributable fractions (MAFs) can be estimated among groups of children using a logistic model, which we use to test the suitability of various case definitions as trial endpoints.
Methods and Findings
A total of 4,583 blood samples were taken from well children in cross-sectional surveys and from 1,361 children admitted to a Kenyan District hospital with severe disease. Among children under 2 y old with severe disease and over 2,500 parasites per microliter of blood, the MAFs were above 85% in moderate- and low-transmission areas, but only 61% in a high-transmission area. HIV and malnutrition were not associated with reduced MAFs, but gastroenteritis with severe dehydration (defined by reduced skin turgor), lower respiratory tract infection (clinician's final diagnosis), meningitis (on cerebrospinal fluid [CSF] examination), and bacteraemia were associated with reduced MAFs. The overall MAF was 85% (95% confidence interval [CI] 83.8%–86.1%) without excluding these conditions, 89% (95% CI 88.4%–90.2%) after exclusions, and 95% (95% CI 94.0%–95.5%) when a threshold of 2,500 parasites/μl was also applied. Applying a threshold and exclusion criteria reduced sensitivity to 80% (95% CI 77%–83%).
The specificity of a case definition for severe malaria is improved by applying a parasite density threshold and by excluding children with meningitis, lower respiratory tract infection (clinician's diagnosis), bacteraemia, and gastroenteritis with severe dehydration, but not by excluding children with HIV or malnutrition.
The accepted definition of severe malaria is appropriate for clinical purposes, but Philip Bejon and colleagues show its specificity in clinical trials may be improved by a parasite density threshold and by excluding children with certain conditions.
Malaria is responsible for over a million deaths every year, and most of those who die are children in Africa. Until a few years ago, not enough research was being done on malaria, but now many researchers are active in this field. Doctors describe some cases of malaria as being “severe.” Severe malaria in children is very hard to diagnose precisely. Current protocols for diagnosing severe malaria are very sensitive: that is, virtually all children who do have severe malaria will be correctly diagnosed as such. However, the protocols are not very specific: many children who do not have severe malaria, but whose symptoms are instead caused by other diseases, will be defined as suffering from severe malaria. This definition is acceptable for the clinical care of sick children, because it ensures that antimalarial drugs are given to all who might benefit from them, plus some additional children for whom those drugs are not required. However, this definition is not particularly useful for research purposes. When conducting a clinical trial aimed at preventing cases of malaria, it is important to evaluate whether the intervention being tested actually works. Therefore, a more specific method of calculating the number of malaria cases within a population is needed for this type of research.
Why Was This Study Done?
The current definition for diagnosing severe malaria includes a set of signs and symptoms that may be observed at the bedside or as a result of laboratory investigation, along with the detection of malaria parasites in the patient's blood. However, in many malarious areas, a large proportion of the population carries malaria parasites without signs of disease; at the same time, the signs and symptoms of malaria are shared with other diseases. The investigators here wanted to find out whether they could develop an accurate “case definition” of severe malaria that can be used in research.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
In this study, two groups of children were studied: first, 1,422 children admitted to the children's wards of the Kilifi District Hospital in Kenya, and second, 4,583 children from the surrounding community. Blood samples were taken in order to find out how common malaria parasites were in the children's blood, and standard clinical and laboratory data were also collected from the children admitted to the hospital. The researchers then compared these data using a computer and tried to find out whether, by excluding certain children who had particular signs, symptoms, or observations, from the diagnosis of severe malaria, they were able to improve the accuracy of their definition. Essentially, for each patient group, the authors calculated “malaria-attributable fractions,” i.e., the proportion of individuals studied whose disease was likely caused by malaria.
The researchers found that in areas with low and moderate transmission of malaria, the proportion of individuals whose disease could be attributed to malaria was high—nearly 85%. In areas with a high transmission rate of malaria, this fraction was much lower, but could be improved by including only children with a high proportion of parasites in their blood. Importantly, the researchers were also able to increase the recognition of children with disease likely caused by malaria by excluding individuals who had also been diagnosed with gastroenteritis, lower respiratory tract infections, meningitis, and bacterial infection in the blood. If all of these individuals were excluded—so only individuals with more than 2,500 parasites per microliter in their blood were regarded as having severe malaria—the “malaria-attributable fraction” rose to 95%.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings should not be directly used to change the clinical care of children with the signs and symptoms of severe malaria, but rather can be used within a clinical trial to create a “case definition” of malaria particular to that trial. This ability will help researchers more accurately find out whether the intervention being tested in their trial really does help to prevent cases of malaria or not.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040251.
The World Health Organization Global Malaria Programme details the organization's activities in fighting malaria, and provides a number of helpful resources; a factsheet on children and malaria is also available
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides many malaria resources
General information about malaria, including illustrations, is available from the“Medline Plus” encyclopedia