The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/1475-2875-11-324) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
GRO, PR, MDH, ML and SP attended the patients, collected the data and drafted the manuscript. MS carried out the microscopic examination. JMR carried out the molecular genetic studies. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Submicroscopic malaria (SMM) can be defined as low-density infections of Plasmodium that are unlikely to be detected by conventional microscopy. Such submicroscopic infections only occasionally cause acute disease, but they are capable of infecting mosquitoes and contributing to transmission. This entity is frequent in endemic countries; however, little is known about imported SMM.
The goals of this study were two-fold: a) to know the frequency of imported SMM, and b) to describe epidemiological, laboratorial and clinical features of imported SMM.
A retrospective study based on review of medical records was performed. The study population consisted of patients older than 15 years attended at the Tropical Medicine Unit of Hospital Carlos III, between January 1, 2002 and December 31, 2007. Routinely detection techniques for Plasmodium included Field staining and microscopic examination through thick and thin blood smear. A semi-nested multiplex malaria PCR was used to diagnose or to confirm cases with low parasitaemia.
SMM was diagnosed in 104 cases, representing 35.5% of all malaria cases. Mean age (IC95%) was 40.38 years (37.41-43.34), and sex distribution was similar. Most cases were in immigrants, but some cases were found in travellers. Equatorial Guinea was the main country where infection was acquired (81.7%). Symptoms were present only in 28.8% of all SMM cases, mainly asthenia (73.3% of symptomatic patients), fever (60%) and arthromialgias (53.3%). The associated laboratory abnormalities were anaemia (27.9%), leukopaenia (15.4%) and thrombopaenia (15.4%). Co-morbidity was described in 75 cases (72.1%).
Results from this study suggest that imported SMM should be considered in some patients attended at Tropical Medicine Units. Although it is usually asymptomatic, it may be responsible of fever, or laboratory abnormalities in patients coming from endemic areas. The possibility of transmission in SMM has been previously described in endemic zones, and presence of vector in Europe has also been reported. Implementation of molecular tests in all asymptomatic individuals coming from endemic area is not economically feasible. So re-emergence of malaria (Plasmodium vivax) in Europe may be speculated.
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