Background: Pregnancy is a known risk factor for malaria which is associated with increased maternal and infant mortality and morbidity in areas of moderate-high malaria transmission intensity where Plasmodium falciparum predominates. The nature and impact of malaria, however, is not well understood in pregnant women residing in areas of low, unstable malaria transmission where P. falciparum and P. vivax co-exist. Methods: A large longitudinal active surveillance study of malaria was conducted in the Chittagong Hill Districts of Bangladesh. Over 32 months in 2010-2013, the period prevalence of asymptomatic P. falciparum infections was assessed by rapid diagnostic test and blood smear and compared among men, non-pregnant women and pregnant women. A subset of samples was tested for infection by PCR. Hemoglobin was assessed. Independent risk factors for malaria infection were determined using a multivariate logistic regression model. Results: Total of 34 asymptomatic P. falciparum infections were detected by RDT/smear from 3,110 tests. The period prevalence of asymptomatic P. falciparum infection in pregnant women was 2.3%, compared to 0.5% in non-pregnant women and 0.9% in men. All RDT/smear positive samples that were tested by PCR were PCR-positive, and PCR detected additional 35 infections that were RDT/smear negative. In a multivariate logistic regression analysis, pregnant women had 5.4-fold higher odds of infection as compared to non-pregnant women. Malaria-positive pregnant women, though asymptomatic, had statistically lower hemoglobin than those without malaria or pregnancy. Asymptomatic malaria was found to be evenly distributed across space and time, in contrast to symptomatic infections which tend to cluster. Conclusion: Pregnancy is a risk factor for asymptomatic P. falciparum infection in the Chittagong Hill Districts of Bangladesh, and pregnancy and malaria interact to heighten the effect of each on hemoglobin. The even distribution of asymptomatic malaria, without temporal and spatial clustering, may have critical implications for malaria elimination strategies.
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