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Malar J. 2013 Oct 3;12:352. doi: 10.1186/1475-2875-12-352.

Detection of a substantial number of sub-microscopic Plasmodium falciparum infections by polymerase chain reaction: a potential threat to malaria control and diagnosis in Ethiopia.

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Aklilu Lemma Institute of Pathobiology, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.



Prompt and effective malaria diagnosis not only alleviates individual suffering, but also decreases malaria transmission at the community level. The commonly used diagnostic methods, microscopy and rapid diagnostic tests, are usually insensitive at very low-density parasitaemia. Molecular techniques, on the other hand, allow the detection of low-level, sub-microscopic parasitaemia. This study aimed to explore the presence of sub-microscopic Plasmodium falciparum infections using polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The PCR-based parasite prevalence was compared against microscopy and rapid diagnostic test (RDT).


This study used 1,453 blood samples collected from clinical patients and sub-clinical subjects to determine the prevalence of sub-microscopic P. falciparum carriages. Subsets of RDT and microscopy negative blood samples were tested by PCR while all RDT and microscopically confirmed P. falciparum-infected samples were subjected to PCR. Finger-prick blood samples spotted on filter paper were used for parasite genomic DNA extraction.


The prevalence of sub-microscopic P. falciparum carriage was 19.2% (77/400) (95% CI = 15. 4-23.1). Microscopy-based prevalence of P. falciparum infection was 3.7% (54/1,453) while the prevalence was 6.9% (100/1,453) using RDT alone. Using microscopy and PCR, the estimated parasite prevalence was 20.6% if PCR were performed in 1,453 blood samples. The prevalence was estimated to be 22.7% if RDT and PCR were used. Of 54 microscopically confirmed P. falciparum-infected subjects, PCR detected 90.7% (49/54). Out of 100 RDT-confirmed P. falciparum infections; PCR detected 80.0% (80/100). The sensitivity of PCR relative to microscopy and RDT was, therefore, 90.7% and 80%, respectively. The sensitivity of microscopy and RDT relative to PCR was 16.5 (49/299) and 24.2% (80/330), respectively. The overall PCR-based prevalence of P. falciparum infection was 5.6- and 3.3 fold higher than that determined by microscopy and RDT, respectively. None of the sub-microscopic subjects had severe anaemia, though 29.4% had mild anaemia (10-11.9 g/dl).


Asymptomatic, low-density malaria infection was common in the study area and PCR may be a better tool for measuring Plasmodium prevalence than microscopy and RDT. The inadequate sensitivity of the diagnostic methods to detect substantial number of sub-microscopic parasitaemia would undoubtedly affect malaria control efforts, making reduction of transmission more difficult. RDT and microscopy-based prevalence studies and subsequent reports of reduction in malaria incidence underestimate the true pictures of P. falciparum infections in the community. PCR, on the other hand, seems to have reasonable sensitivity to detect a higher number of infected subjects with low and sub-microscopic parasite densities than RDTs or microscopy.

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