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Ann Trop Med Parasitol. 1997 Oct;91(7):803-10.

The placenta and malaria.

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Clinic of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, University of Brescia, Italy.


Placental malaria is recognized as a common complication of malaria in pregnancy in areas of stable transmission, and is particularly frequent and severe in primigravidae. Many hypotheses, based on a systemic or local failure of the immunological response to malaria, have been proposed to explain the 'preference' of the parasites for replication in the placenta. Some of the hypotheses are briefly reviewed here, with a particular focus on the discovery of an uncommon subpopulation of Plasmodium falciparum which can adhere and massively sequester in the placenta. Histologically, placental malaria is characterized by the presence of parasites and leucocytes within the intervillous spaces, pigment within macrophages, fibrin deposits and trophoblasts, proliferation of cytotrophoblastic cells and thickening of the trophoblastic basement membrane. The exact mechanisms leading to placental changes and determining the observed impairment of materno-foetal exchange are incompletely understood. Parasites are unlikely to be directly responsible for the placental pathology, but leucocytes, through the production of non-chemotactic cytokines, might be associated with the thickening of the trophoblastic basement membrane, and might cause a mechanical blockage of oxygen and nutrient transport across the placenta. There is sound epidemiological evidence that placental malaria determines low birthweight, mainly mediated by intrauterine growth retardation, and increases the risk of death and disease during the first year of life. Antimalarial chemoprophylaxis significantly reduces placental malaria and prevents the development of low birthweight. It is likely that, in areas of high endemicity, the placenta is where the drama of maternal malaria is mostly played. A deeper understanding of the mechanisms involved in this process is of key importance in the design of protective interventions which are effective and acceptable during the gestation period.

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