> Table of Contents > Malaria
Paul M. Arguin, MD
image BASICS
  • Acute or chronic infection transmitted to humans by Anopheles spp. mosquitoes
  • Most morbidity and mortality is caused by Plasmodium falciparum. An estimated 198 million cases occur annually, including 584,000 deaths, most of which occur in children <5 years of age in sub-Saharan Africa (1).
  • Nonimmune individuals are most susceptible to rapid progression to severe disease.
  • System(s) affected: cardiovascular, hematologic, renal, respiratory, cerebral, lymphatic, immunologic
  • Cases imported to the United States: 58% P. falciparum; 17% Plasmodium vivax; 3% Plasmodium malariae; 3% Plasmodium ovale; 1% mixed; 17% unknown
  • Occurs worldwide in tropical latitudes: P. falciparum, P. malariae, P. vivax, and P. ovale. P. knowlesi in parts of Southeast Asia.
  • Most U.S. cases (>99%) are imported.
  • ˜1,500 cases and 5 deaths per year in the United States (2)
  • Predominant age: all ages
  • Predominant sex: male = female
  • Malarial parasites digest red blood cell (RBC) proteins and alter the RBC membrane, thereby causing hemolysis, increased splenic clearance, and anemia.
  • RBC lysis stimulates release of cytokines and tumor necrosis factor-&agr; (TNF-&agr;) causing fever and systemic symptoms.
  • P. falciparum alters RBC viscosity, causing obstruction and end-organ ischemia.
Unknown genetic predilection but inherited conditions may affect disease severity and susceptibility (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, sickle cell disease or trait, and hereditary elliptocytosis)
  • Travel/migration from endemic areas (primarily sub-Saharan Africa)
  • Rarely, blood transfusion, mother-to-fetus transmission, and local autochthonous transmission
  • Mosquito avoidance measures: Use of insect repellent, wear clothing that covers exposed skin, use mosquito nets treated with permethrin, and avoid outdoor activity from dusk to dawn.
  • Malarial chemoprophylaxis when in endemic area
    • Mefloquine: begin at least 2 weeks before arrival and continue for 4 weeks after leaving area. Adults, 250 mg (1 tablet) weekly; children ≤9 kg, 5 mg/kg; children >9 to 19 kg, 1/4 tablet weekly; children >19 to 30 kg, 1/2 tablet weekly; children >30 to 45 kg, 3/4 tablet weekly; children >45 kg as adult
      • Caution: mefloquine-resistant areas
    • Atovaquone/proguanil: begin 1 to 2 days before arrival and continue for 1 week after leaving area. Adults, 1 adult tablet daily; children 5 to 8 kg, 1/2 pediatric tablet daily; children 9 to 10 kg, 3/4 pediatric tablet daily; children 11 to 20 kg, 1 pediatric tablet daily; children 21 to 30 kg, 2 pediatric tablets daily; children 31 to 40 kg, 3 pediatric tablets daily; children >40 kg, 1 adult tablet daily
    • Doxycycline: begin 1 to 2 days before arrival and continue for 4 weeks after leaving area. Adults, 100 mg daily; children, 2 mg/kg up to 100 mg daily (not for children <8 years old)
    • Chloroquine: begin 1 to 2 weeks before arrival and continue for 4 weeks after leaving area. Adults, 500 mg (300-mg base) weekly; children, 8.3 mg/kg (5-mg base/kg) weekly up to 300 mg
      • Caution: chloroquine-resistant areas
    • Primaquine: begin 1 to 2 days before arrival and continue for 1 week after leaving area; adults, 30 mg/day; children, 0.5 mg/kg/day up to adult dose
      • For use only in areas predominantly endemic for P. vivax
      • Caution: Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency must be excluded prior to first use.
Bacterial coinfections sometimes occur.
  • Often not specific
  • General: elevated temperature, fatigue, tachycardia, tachypnea, jaundice
  • Neurologic: mental status and motor-sensory exam (cerebral malaria)
  • Cardiopulmonary exam: hemodynamic stability and signs of vascular leak (effusion)
  • Skin exam: pallor, rash
  • Abdominal exam: organomegaly
  • Infections (disseminated or localized): abscess, viral, gastroenteritis, typhoid/paratyphoid, other bacteremias, rickettsial disease, mycobacteria
  • Collagen vascular disease (systemic lupus erythematosus [SLE], vasculitides)
  • Neoplasms (lymphoma, leukemia, other blood dyscrasias, other tropical causes of splenomegaly)
  • Severe malaria infection may mimic hepatitis, pneumonia, stroke, or sepsis.
  • Malarial smear thick and thin preparations (3)[A]
    • Microscopy to evaluate for presence of parasite forms, determine species, and quantify the percentage of RBCs that are infected. Relatively easy to perform with proper training.
    • Test should be performed on site, immediately, with results quickly available.
      • Rapid antigen capture enzyme: can detect the presence of malaria parasites within minutes. Cannot determine species or quantify parasitemia. Positive and negative results must always be confirmed by microscopy.
      • Other tests: species-specific PCR; species confirmation by PCR is encouraged.
  • General laboratory findings (nonspecific)
    • In uncomplicated infection
      • Elevated liver function tests and lactate dehydrogenase
      • Thrombocytopenia, anemia, and leukopenia
  • Note: a low to low-normal platelet count or a slightly high bilirubin should alert the clinician to the diagnosis after exposure in an endemic setting.
  • Note: Antimalarial prophylaxis may reduce parasitemia.
Initial Tests (lab, imaging)
  • CBC with differential and platelets
  • Basic chemistry panel including bilirubin
  • Malaria thick and thin blood films (if negative, repeat q12-24h for at least three sets)
  • Imaging necessary only for respiratory disease (chest x-ray) or cerebral malaria (CT scan prior to lumbar puncture)
Follow-Up Tests & Special Considerations
  • Nonimmune individuals with suspected or confirmed P. falciparum should be hospitalized.
  • Clinical specimens from suspected or confirmed malaria cases in the United States can be submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for diagnostic confirmation, speciation, and drug resistance surveillance free of charge.
Test Interpretation
Interpretation of microscopy. Blood is obtained from the patient and spread on a microscope slide as a thick/thin prep and stained with Giemsa (most commonly). The slide is viewed under 100X oil immersion to examine for ring, gametocyte, trophozoite, and schizont forms. The thick film is better for detecting parasites. The thin film is used to determine species and calculating the percentage of RBCs infected. Both should always be performed.

First Line
  • For uncomplicated chloroquine-resistant P. falciparum (most P. falciparum), chloroquine-resistant P. vivax, or when species is unknown, the following regimens are recommended (4)[A]:
    • Atovaquone-proguanil (Malarone): adult tablet: 250 mg atovaquone and 100 mg proguanil. Pediatric tablet: 62.5 mg atovaquone and 25 mg proguanil. Adults: 4 adult tablets once per day for 3 days. Children 5 to 8 kg: 2 pediatric tablets once per day for 3 days; children 9 to 10 kg: 3 pediatric tablets once per day for 3 days; children 11 to 20 kg: 1 adult tablet once per day for 3 days; children 21 to 30 kg: 2 adult tablets once per day for 3 days; children 31 to 40 kg: 3 adult tablets once per day for 3 days; children >40 kg: 4 adult tablets once per day for 3 days
    • Artemether-lumefantrine (Coartem): tablet contains 20 mg artemether and 120 mg lumefantrine. Persons 5 to <15 kg: 1 tablet BID for 3 days; persons 15 to <25 kg: 2 tablets BID for 3 days; persons 25 to <35 kg: 3 tablets BID for 3 days; persons ≥35 kg: 4 tablets BID for 3 days
    • Quinine sulfate plus doxycycline or clindamycin: adults: quinine sulfate 650 mg (salt) TID for 3 days (should be extended to 7 days for infections acquired in Southeast Asia). Doxycycline 100 mg BID for 7 days. Clindamycin 20 mg (base)/kg/day divided TID for 7 days. Children: quinine sulfate 10 mg (salt)/kg TID for 3 days (should be extended to 7 days for infections acquires in Southeast Asia) plus clindamycin dosed as above.
    • Mefloquine: adults: 750 mg followed by 500 mg 8 hours later. Children: 15 mg/kg followed by 10 mg/kg 8 hours later (maximum total dose: 1,250 mg)
  • PO therapy for P. ovale, P. malariae, chloroquine-sensitive P. falciparum (rare), and chloroquine-sensitive P. vivax (New Guinea has highest rates of chloroquine-resistant P. vivax); in addition to the treatment regimens listed above, other options are as follows:
    • Chloroquine: adults: 1 g (600-mg base) followed by 500 mg (300-mg base) at 6, 24, and 48 hours after first dose. Children: 16.6 mg/kg (10-mg base/kg) on day 1 (max 1,000 mg [600-mg base]), then 8.3 mg/kg (5-mg/kg base) at 6, 24, and 48 hours after first dose
    • Primaquine (should be added to the acute treatment regimen for cure of dormant forms of P. vivax and P. ovale): adults: 30-mg base (52.6 mg) daily for 2 weeks. Children: 0.6-mg base/kg/day for 2 weeks
  • Therapy for severe malaria
    • Clinical features defining severe malaria:
      • Impaired level of consciousness (LOC)
      • Respiratory distress, jaundice
      • Repeated convulsions, shock
      • Renal failure
    • Laboratory features:
      • Parasitemia >5%
      • Hypoglycemia
      • Acidosis (usually lactic acidosis)
  • Parenteral therapy
    • Quinidine gluconate 10 mg/kg in normal saline over 1 to 2 hours followed by 0.02 mg/kg/min continuous infusion
    • Intensive care monitoring is necessary, especially when initiating quinidine therapy.
  • In severe malaria, contact the CDC for assistance; CDC Malaria Branch: 770-488-7100; http://www.cdc.gov/Malaria/
  • In 2007, the CDC made artesunate available in the United States for severe malaria in special circumstances under an investigational protocol. Contact the CDC for assistance.
Infectious disease or tropical medicine consultation advised. Malaria is a reportable disease (http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/features/new_report_form.html).
Pediatric Considerations
  • Children are particularly susceptible to severe disease.
  • All children, even infants, should receive chemoprophylaxis if traveling to an endemic area.
  • Malaria commonly resembles acute gastroenteritis in children.
  • Children with severe disease are particularly prone to hypoglycemia. Use IV fluids with glucose for maintenance and monitor blood glucose frequently.
Pregnancy Considerations
  • Chloroquine is safe in the doses recommended for prevention and treatment of malaria; FDA pregnancy Category C.
  • Mefloquine is safe in the doses recommended for prevention and treatment of malaria; FDA pregnancy Category B.
  • Atovaquone-proguanil (Malarone) has not been studied in pregnant women; it has not been shown to cause birth defects or other problems in animal studies; FDA pregnancy Category C.
  • No primaquine (FDA class undetermined) or tetracyclines (FDA pregnancy Category D) in pregnancy
  • Quinine/Quinidine (FDA pregnancy Category C, respectively) should be used during pregnancy because benefit outweighs risk.
None. Deaths have resulted from using unapproved alternatives to recommended medications.
Rarely, splenectomy must be performed in patients with splenic rupture.
Admission Criteria/Initial Stabilization
  • Inpatient care for all cases of P. falciparum malaria. Hospitalize patients with signs of severe illness, regardless of species; outpatient care for others.
  • Nonimmune patients with P. falciparum may progress from mild symptoms to death within 12 hours.
  • All patients treated on outpatient basis should have follow-up within 24 hours.
IV Fluids
Maintenance IV fluids with glucose because of risk of hypoglycemia are recommended if unable to tolerate fluids by mouth. Excess fluids may result in iatrogenically induced pulmonary edema.
Observe for fluid excess, renal insufficiency (urine output), and hypoglycemia
Discharge Criteria
Clinical improvement and ability to tolerate oral medications and fluids, with documented decreasing parasitemia levels
  • Malarial chemoprophylaxis prior to travel
  • Travel information may be obtained at the CDC travel Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/travel
  • http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/new_info/2014/malaria_ebola.htm
Malaria infection (particularly P. falciparum) can carry a high mortality if untreated. If diagnosed early and treated appropriately, the prognosis is excellent.
1. World Health Organization. World Malaria Report 2014. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO Press; 2014.
2. Cullen KA, Arguin PM. Malaria surveillance—United States, 2012. MMWR Surveil Summ. 2014;63(12):1-22.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for malaria diagnosis in patients suspected of ebola infection in the United States. http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/new_info/2014/malaria_ebola.htm. Updated January 15, 2015.
4. Griffith KS, Lewis LS, Mali S, et al. Treatment of malaria in the United States: a systematic review. JAMA. 2007;297(20):2264-2277.
Additional Reading
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidelines for treatment of malaria in the United States. http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/resources/pdf/treatmenttable.pdf. Updated July 1, 2013.
  • Steinhardt LC, Magill AJ, Arguin PM. Review: malaria chemoprophylaxis for travelers to Latin America. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 2011;85(6):1015-1024.
  • B54 Unspecified malaria
  • B50.9 Plasmodium falciparum malaria, unspecified
  • B51.9 Plasmodium vivax malaria without complication
Clinical Pearls
  • Consider malaria in travelers returning from endemic areas who present with fever or nonspecific flulike illness.
  • Early identification and aggressive treatment, particularly of nonimmune persons with suspected or confirmed P. falciparum malaria, is important.
  • Patients who develop clinical malaria despite chemoprophylaxis should be treated with medication that is different from their chemoprophylaxis drug.
  • P. falciparum malaria can be rapidly fatal and should be cared for in the inpatient setting.