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Lung involvement in malaria has been recognized for more than 200 hundred years, yet our knowledge of its pathogenesis and management is limited. Pulmonary edema is the most severe form of lung involvement. Increased alveolar capillary permeability leading to intravascular fluid loss into the lungs is the main pathophysiologic mechanism. This defines malaria as another cause of acute lung injury (ALI) and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).Pulmonary edema has been described most often in non-immune individuals with Plasmodium falciparum infections as part of a severe systemic illness or as the main feature of acute malaria. P.vivax and P.ovale have also rarely caused pulmonary edema.Clinically, patients usually present with acute breathlessness that can rapidly progress to respiratory failure either at disease presentation or, interestingly, after treatment when clinical improvement is taking place and the parasitemia is falling. Pregnant women are particularly prone to developing pulmonary edema. Optimal management of malaria-induced ALI/ARDS includes early recognition and diagnosis. Malaria must always be suspected in a returning traveler or a visitor from a malaria-endemic country with an acute febrile illness. Slide microscopy and/or the use of rapid antigen tests are standard diagnostic tools. Malaria must be treated with effective drugs, but current choices are few: e.g. parenteral artemisinins, intravenous quinine or quinidine (in the US only). A recent trial in adults has shown that intravenous artesunate reduces severe malaria mortality by a third compared with adults treated with intravenous quinine. Respiratory compromise should be managed on its merits and may require mechanical ventilation.Patients should be managed in an intensive care unit and particular attention should be paid to the energetic management of other severe malaria complications, notably coma and acute renal failure. ALI/ARDS may also be related to a coincidental bacterial sepsis that may not be clinically obvious. Clinicians should employ a low threshold for starting broad spectrum antibacterials in such patients, after taking pertinent microbiologic specimens. Despite optimal management, the prognosis of severe malaria with ARDS is poor.ALI/ARDS in pediatric malaria appears to be rare. However, falciparum malaria with severe metabolic acidosis or acute pulmonary edema may present with a clinical picture of pneumonia, i.e. with tachypnea, intercostal recession, wheeze or inspiratory crepitations. This results in diagnostic confusion and suboptimal treatment. Whilst this is increasingly being recognized in malaria-endemic countries, clinicians in temperate zones should be aware that malaria may be a possible cause of 'pneumonia' in a visiting or returning child.

Original publication




Journal article


Treatments in respiratory medicine

Publication Date





419 - 428


Travel and Migration Medicine Unit, Department of Community Medicine, Geneva University Hospital, Geneva, Switzerland.


Lung, Humans, Malaria, Malaria, Falciparum, Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Adult, Intensive Care Units, Acute Lung Injury