Dry season prevalence of plasmodium falciparum in asymptomatic Gambian children, with a comparative evaluation of diagnostic methods

Jason Mooney, Sophia M. Donvito, Maimuna Jahateh, Haddy Bittaye, Christian Bottomley, Umberto D'Alessandro, Eleanor Riley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background
Subclinical infection with Plasmodium falciparum remains highly prevalent, yet diagnosing these often low-density infections remains a challenge. Infections can be subpatent, falling below the limit of detection for conventional thick-film microscopy and rapid diagnostic testing (RDT). In this study, the prevalence of subclinical P. falciparum infections in school-aged children was characterised at the start of the dry season in the Upper River Region of The Gambia in 2017/2018, with a goal to also compare the utility of different diagnostic tools.
Methods
In a cross-sectional survey of children living in 29 villages on the south bank of the Gambia river (median age of 10 years), matched microscopy, rapid diagnostic test (RDT, detecting histidine-rich protein 2) and polymerase chain reaction (PCR, targeting either 18S rRNA or var gene acidic terminal sequence) were used to determine the prevalence of patent and subpatent infections and to compare the performance of the different diagnostic methods.
Results
The prevalence of var gene acidic terminal sequence (varATS) qPCR-detectable infections was 10.2% (141/1381) with a median density of 3.12 parasites/µL. Malaria prevalence was highly heterogeneous across the region, ranging from <1% to ~40% prevalence in different village clusters. Compared to varATS, 18S rRNA PCR detected fewer low-density infections, with an assay sensitivity of 50% and specificity of 98.8%. Parasite prevalence in the cohort was 2.9% by microscopy and 1.5% by RDT. Compared to varATS qPCR, microscopy and RDT had sensitivities of 11.5% and 9.2%, respectively, although both methods were highly specific (>98%). Samples that were positive by all three tests (varATS qPCR, RDT and microscopy) had significantly higher parasite densities (median = 1705 parasites/µL) than samples that were positive by varATS qPCR only (median = 2.4 parasites/µL).

ConclusionsThe majority of subclinical malaria infections in school-aged children were of extremely low parasite density and detectable only by ultra-sensitive PCR analysis. Understanding the duration of these low density infections, their physiological impact and their contribution to sustained parasite transmission is necessary to inform malaria elimination strategies.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMalaria Journal
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 10 May 2022

Keywords

  • malaria
  • plasmodium
  • subclinical
  • asymptomatic
  • diagnosis
  • Gambia

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