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J Infect Dis. 2009 Nov 15;200(10):1509-17. doi: 10.1086/644781.

Submicroscopic infection in Plasmodium falciparum-endemic populations: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

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Department of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London, United Kingdom.



Light microscopy examination of blood slides is the main method of detecting malaria infection; however, it has limited sensitivity. Low-density infections are most likely to be missed, but they contribute to the infectious reservoir. Quantifying these submicroscopic infections is therefore key to understanding transmission dynamics and successfully reducing parasite transmission.


We conducted a systematic review of endemic population surveys in which P. falciparum prevalence had been measured by both microscopy and a more-sensitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based technique. The combined microscopy:PCR prevalence ratio was estimated by random-effects meta-analysis, and the effect of covariates was determined by meta-regression.


Seventy-two pairs of prevalence measurements were included in the study. The prevalence of infection measured by microscopy was, on average, 50.8% (95% confidence interval [CI], 45.2%-57.1%) of that measured by PCR. For gametocyte-specific detection, the microscopy prevalence was, on average, 8.7% (95% CI, 2.8%-26.6%) of the prevalence measured by PCR. A significantly higher percentage of total infections was detected by microscopy in areas of high, compared with low, transmission (74.5% when the prevalence determined by PCR was >75% versus 12.0% when the prevalence determined by PCR was <10%).


Microscopy can miss a substantial proportion of P. falciparum infections in surveys of endemic populations, especially in areas with low transmission of infection. The extent of the submicroscopic reservoir needs to be taken into account for effective surveillance and control.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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