Although maternal anaemia often stems from malaria infection during pregnancy, its effects on foetal haemoglobin levels are not straightforward. Lower-than-expected cord haemoglobin values in malarious versus non-malarious regions were noted by one review, which hypothesized they resulted from foetal immune activation to maternal malaria. This study addressed this idea by examining cord haemoglobin levels in relation to maternal malaria, anaemia, and markers of foetal immune activation.
Cord haemoglobin levels were examined in 32 malaria-infected and 58 uninfected women in Blantyre, Malawi, in relation to maternal haemoglobin levels, malaria status, and markers of foetal haematological status, hypoxia, and inflammation, including TNF-α, TGF-β, and ferritin. All women were HIV-negative.
Although malaria was associated with a reduction in maternal haemoglobin (10.8 g/dL vs. 12.1 g/dL, p < 0.001), no reduction in cord haemoglobin and no significant relationship between maternal and cord haemoglobin levels were found. Cord blood markers of haematological and hypoxic statuses did not differ between malaria-infected and uninfected women. Maternal malaria was associated with decreased TGF-β and increased cord ferritin, the latter of which was positively correlated with parasitaemia (r = 0.474, p = 0.009). Increased cord ferritin was associated with significantly decreased birth weight and gestational length, although maternal and cord haemoglobin levels and malaria status had no effect on birth outcome.
In this population, cord haemoglobin levels were protected from the effect of maternal malaria. However, decreased TGF-β and elevated ferritin levels in cord blood suggest foetal immune activation to maternal malaria, which may help explain poor birth outcomes.