Current artesunate (ARS) regimens for severe malaria are complex. Once daily intramuscular (i.m.) injection for 3 d would be simpler and more appropriate for remote health facilities than the current WHO-recommended regimen of five intravenous (i.v.) or i.m. injections over 4 d. We compared both a three-dose i.m. and a three-dose i.v. parenteral ARS regimen with the standard five-dose regimen using a non-inferiority design (with non-inferiority margins of 10%).
Methods and Findings
This randomized controlled trial included children (0.5–10 y) with severe malaria at seven sites in five African countries to assess whether the efficacy of simplified three-dose regimens is non-inferior to a five-dose regimen. We randomly allocated 1,047 children to receive a total dose of 12 mg/kg ARS as either a control regimen of five i.m. injections of 2.4 mg/kg (at 0, 12, 24, 48, and 72 h) (n = 348) or three injections of 4 mg/kg (at 0, 24, and 48 h) either i.m. (n = 348) or i.v. (n = 351), both of which were the intervention arms. The primary endpoint was the proportion of children with ≥99% reduction in parasitemia at 24 h from admission values, measured by microscopists who were blinded to the group allocations. Primary analysis was performed on the per-protocol population, which was 96% of the intention-to-treat population. Secondary analyses included an analysis of host and parasite genotypes as risks for prolongation of parasite clearance kinetics, measured every 6 h, and a Kaplan–Meier analysis to compare parasite clearance kinetics between treatment groups. A post hoc analysis was performed for delayed anemia, defined as hemoglobin ≤ 7g/dl 7 d or more after admission.
The per-protocol population was 1,002 children (five-dose i.m.: n = 331; three-dose i.m.: n = 338; three-dose i.v.: n = 333); 139 participants were lost to follow-up. In the three-dose i.m. arm, 265/338 (78%) children had a ≥99% reduction in parasitemia at 24 h compared to 263/331 (79%) receiving the five-dose i.m. regimen, showing non-inferiority of the simplified three-dose regimen to the conventional five-dose regimen (95% CI −7, 5; p = 0.02). In the three-dose i.v. arm, 246/333 (74%) children had ≥99% reduction in parasitemia at 24 h; hence, non-inferiority of this regimen to the five-dose control regimen was not shown (95% CI −12, 1; p = 0.24). Delayed parasite clearance was associated with the N86YPfmdr1 genotype. In a post hoc analysis, 192/885 (22%) children developed delayed anemia, an adverse event associated with increased leukocyte counts. There was no observed difference in delayed anemia between treatment arms.
A potential limitation of the study is its open-label design, although the primary outcome measures were assessed in a blinded manner.
A simplified three-dose i.m. regimen for severe malaria in African children is non-inferior to the more complex WHO-recommended regimen. Parenteral ARS is associated with a risk of delayed anemia in African children.
Pan African Clinical Trials Registry PACTR201102000277177
In a randomized trial, Sanjeev Krishna and colleagues test for non-inferiority of a simplified artemisinin regimen as treatment for malaria in a low-resource setting.
Globally, about 200 million cases of malaria—a mosquito-borne parasitic disease—occur every year. Malaria infections, which can be caused by several parasites, can be “uncomplicated” or “severe.” Prompt treatment of uncomplicated malaria, which presents with flu-like symptoms, is essential to prevent the development of severe malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends artemisinin combination therapy (ACT) for the first-line treatment of uncomplicated malaria in countries where the disease is always present. In ACT, artemisinin derivatives (fast-acting antimalarial drugs that are cleared rapidly from the body) are combined with a slower-acting, more slowly eliminated partner drug to prevent the original infection recurring and to reduce the risk of the malaria parasites becoming resistant to either drug. Severe malaria, which is usually caused by Plasmodium falciparum, is characterized by anemia and by damage to the brain and other organs. Severe malaria kills more than 400,000 people (mainly young children living in sub-Saharan Africa) every year.
Why Was This Study Done?
WHO recommends that severe malaria be treated with intravenous or intramuscular injections of artesunate, a parenteral (injectable) form of artemisinin; patients with severe malaria cannot take pills reliably or safely. Specifically, WHO recommends that patients be given 2.4 mg of artesunate per kilogram of body weight intravenously or intramuscularly at the time of admission (0 hours) and at 12, 24, 48, and 72 hours (followed by ACT to ensure full parasite clearance). But this five-dose regimen is complex. A simpler regimen would be easier to administer in resource-limited settings, where giving the correct doses on time to small, sick children can be challenging. In this open-label, non-inferiority randomized controlled trial (RCT), the researchers investigate the efficacy of a three-dose artesunate regimen for the treatment of severe malaria in African children. RCTs compare outcomes in people randomly chosen to receive different interventions; in an open-label RCT, both the researchers and the participants know which treatment is being given; a non-inferiority trial investigates whether one treatment is not worse than another treatment.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers randomly allocated 1,047 children aged six months to ten years with severe malaria attending seven clinical centers in five African countries to receive a total dose of 12 mg of artesunate per kilogram of body weight as five intramuscular injections of 2.4 mg/kg given at 0, 12, 24, 48, and 72 hours (the control regimen) or as three intramuscular or intravenous injections of 4 mg/kg given at 0, 12, and 24 hours (three-dose intramuscular and intravenous regimens, respectively). The trial’s primary endpoint was the proportion of children whose parasitemia (parasite count in the blood) at 24 hours was ≤1% of that at admission (in other words, ≥99% parasite clearance). Among the 1,002 children who received the planned drug doses (the per-protocol population), 78% in the three-dose intramuscular group had ≥99% parasite clearance compared to 79% in the five-dose intramuscular group, a result that met a preset criterion for non-inferiority at 24 hours of the three-dose intramuscular regimen to the control regimen. However, because only 74% of the children in the three-dose intravenous group had ≥99% parasite clearance, this regimen was not shown to be non-inferior to the conventional five-dose regimen.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings when combined with the findings of several secondary analyses suggest that, in African children, a three-dose intramuscular artesunate regimen is non-inferior to the WHO-recommended regimen for the treatment of severe malaria. The study’s open-label design may limit the accuracy of its findings, as may its use of a primary endpoint midway through drug treatment rather than at the end (the researchers note that 60% of deaths from severe malaria occur during the first 24 hours of illness and that parasitemia is harder to measure later during treatment) and its use of parasite clearance rather than death as the primary endpoint (case fatality rates in severe malaria treatment trials are very low, so a much larger study would be needed if death were used as the primary endpoint). Overall, these findings support the use of the three-dose intramuscular artesunate regimen for the treatment of severe malaria. Importantly, however, 22% of the children in the study developed delayed anemia, irrespective of treatment regimen. Thus, although further studies are needed to clarify whether treatment with artesunate or the malaria infection itself was responsible for the delayed anemia, patients treated with artesunate for severe malaria should be routinely monitored for this complication.
This list of resources contains links that can be accessed when viewing the PDF on a device or via the online version of the article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001938.
Information is available from the World Health Organization on malaria (in several languages); the World Malaria Report 2014 provides details of the current global malaria situation, including information on malaria in individual African countries; WHO’s Guidelines for the Treatment of Malaria and its Management of Severe Malaria: A Practical Handbook are available
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on malaria (in English and Spanish), including personal stories about malaria
The UK National Health Service Choices website also provides information about malaria, including a personal story
Information is available from the Roll Back Malaria Partnership on the global control of malaria
The Scientists Against Malaria collaboration applies modern drug design and modeling techniques to develop new treatments against malaria; its website includes information about many aspects of malaria
Public Health England provides a collection of guidance and research and analysis on malaria
MedlinePlus provides links to additional information on malaria (in English and Spanish)
More information about this trial is available