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Contemp Neurol Ser. 1975;12:29-44.

Cerebral Malaria.


Cerebral malaria is an acute diffuse encephalopathy associated only with Plasmodium falciparum. It is probably a consequence of the rapid proliferation of the parasites in the body of man in relation to red cell invasion, and results in stagnation of blood flow in cerebralcapillaries with thromobotic occlusion of large numbers of cerebral capillaries. The subsequent cerebral pathology is cerebral infarction with haemorrhage and cerebral oedema. The wide prevalence of P. falciparum in highly endemic areas results in daily challenges to patients from several infected mosquitoes. It is thus important to understand the characteristics of P. falciparum, since this is one of the most important protozoan parasites of man and severe infection from it constitutes one of the few real clinical emergencies in tropical medicine. One of the more important aspects of the practice of medicine in the tropics is to establish a good understanding of the pattern of medical practice in that area. This applies to malaria as well as to other diseases. The neophyte might be somewhat surprised to learn, for example that an experienced colleague who lives in a holoendemic malarious area such as West Africa, sees no cerebral malaria. But the explanation is simple when the doctor concerned has a practice which involves treating adults only. Cerebral malaria is rare in adults, because in highly endemic areas, by the age of 1 year most of the infants in a group under study have already experienced their first falciparum infection. By the time they reach adult life, they have a solid immunity against severe falciparum infections. In fact, "clinical malaria" could occur in such a group under only two circumstances: 1) in pregnancy, a patent infection with P. falciparum might develop, probably due to an IgG drain across the placenta to the foetus;2) in an individual who has constantly taken antimalarials and who may have an immunity at such a low level that when antimalarial therapy is interrupted, clinical malaria might ensue. The above examples emphasise the paramount importance of the clinician dealing with malaria having some insight into the complex immunity processes operative in the human host; these have been reviewed by McGregor.

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