Congenital Malaria, an Underappreciated Neonatal Problem

The largest portion of infant deaths occurs in the neonatal period. During those first 28 days, the child is at risk from a variety of problems arising from delivery complications, infections and simply not being kept warm.

DSCN6373 smIn malaria endemic areas there is the small but important problem of malaria transferred from mother to child, or congenital malaria. The problem occurs with both Plasmodium vivax and falciparum.

Congenital malaria in the newborn is often hard to detect. There may be fever, but other signs and symptoms might include anaemia, jaundice, paleness, diarrhoea, vomiting, and general weakness.

Prevalence of congenital malaria in Ghana, for example, ranged from 2% by microscopy to 12% using polymerase chain reaction (PCR). In India microscopy revealed a prevalence of 3% with cases of both vivax and falciparum.

One would hope this problem could be avoided if prevention of malaria in pregnancy was practiced using insecticide treated nets, intermittent preventive treatment (IPTp) and prompt and appropriate case management, but studies still find placental and cord parasiteamia in countries where such interventions are supposed to be integrated into antenatal/prenatal care. In Colombia, “An association was found between congenital malaria and the diagnosis of malaria in the mother during the last trimester of pregnancy or during delivery, and the presence of placental infection.”

Countries are in the process of shifting to the relatively new WHO guidance on IPTp that encourages monthly doses of sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine from the beginning of the second trimester up until delivery. Countries are also trying to ensure universal coverage of ITNs so that women will be using nets prior to even becoming pregnant.

We still have trouble administering to take just two doses of IPTp, but if we want to prevent congenital malaria, we need to ensure that women are protected from malaria in their placentas and are free from parasites right up until they give birth and thereby prevent another cause of neonatal mortality.

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