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PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e42670. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042670. Epub 2012 Aug 16.

Iron status predicts malaria risk in Malawian preschool children.

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Global Child Health Group, Emma Children's Hospital, Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.



Iron deficiency is highly prevalent in pre-school children in developing countries and an important health problem in sub-Saharan Africa. A debate exists on the possible protective effect of iron deficiency against malaria and other infections; yet consensus is lacking due to limited data. Recent studies have focused on the risks of iron supplementation but the effect of an individual's iron status on malaria risk remains unclear. Studies of iron status in areas with a high burden of infections often are exposed to bias. The aim of this study was to assess the predictive value of baseline iron status for malaria risk explicitly taking potential biases into account.


We prospectively assessed the relationship between baseline iron deficiency (serum ferritin <30 µg/L) and malaria risk in a cohort of 727 Malawian preschool children during a year of follow-up. Data were analyzed using marginal structural Cox regression models and confounders were selected using causal graph theory. Sensitivity of results to bias resulting from misclassification of iron status by concurrent inflammation and to bias from unmeasured confounding were assessed using modern causal inference methods.


The overall incidence of malaria parasitemia and clinical malaria was 1.9 (95% CI 1.8-2.0) and 0.7 (95% CI 0.6-0.8) events per person-year, respectively. Children with iron deficiency at baseline had a lower incidence of malaria parasitemia and clinical malaria during a year of follow-up; adjusted hazard ratio's 0.55 (95%-CI:0.41-0.74) and 0.49 (95%-CI:0.33-0.73), respectively. Our results suggest that iron deficiency protects against malaria parasitemia and clinical malaria in young children. Therefore the clinical importance of treating iron deficiency in a pre-school child should be weighed carefully against potential harms. In malaria endemic areas treatment of iron deficiency in children requires sustained prevention of malaria.

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