Test Catalog

Interpretive Handbook

Test 87860 :
Malaria, Molecular Detection, PCR Only

Clinical Information Discusses physiology, pathophysiology, and general clinical aspects, as they relate to a laboratory test

Malaria is a major tropical disease infecting approximately 500 million people and causing 1.5 to 2.7 million deaths annually. Ninety percent of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and most of these occur in children <5 years old; it is the leading cause of mortality in this age group. This disease is also widespread in Central and South America, Hispaniola, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Oceania, and Southeast Asia. In the United States, individuals at risk include travelers to and visitors from endemic areas.


Malaria is caused primarily by 4 species of the protozoa Plasmodium: Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium malariae, and Plasmodium ovale. A fifth Plasmodium species, Plasmodium knowlesi, is a similar parasite that may be an important source of human infection in some regions of Southeast Asia. Differentiating Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium knowlesi from other species is important since both can cause life-threatening infections. In addition, Plasmodium falciparum is typically resistant to many commonly used antimalarial agents such as chloroquine.


Microscopy of Giemsa-stained thick and thin blood films is the standard laboratory method for diagnosis and differentiation of malaria parasites. Under optimal conditions, the sensitivity of the thick film microscopy is estimated to be 10 to 30 parasites per microliter of blood. However, microscopic diagnosis requires considerable expertise and may be insensitive or nonspecific when inadequate training and facilities are available. Furthermore, prolonged exposure to EDTA, transportation conditions, and prior use of antimalarial drugs may alter parasite morphology and negatively impact the ability to perform species identification by microscopy. Finally, Babesia parasites have a similar appearance to Plasmodium falciparum ring forms (early trophozoites) on peripheral blood films, resulting in potential diagnostic confusion.


PCR is an alternative method of malaria diagnosis that allows for sensitive and specific detection of Plasmodium species DNA from peripheral blood. PCR may be more sensitive than conventional microscopy in very low parasitemias, and is more specific for species identification. It may be particularly useful when subjective microscopy does not permit certain identification of the species present. Malaria PCR can be used in conjunction with a traditional blood film or Babesia PCR when the clinical or morphologic differential includes both babesiosis and malaria. Examination of the thin film also allows for calculation of percent parasitemia, which can be used to predict prognosis and monitor response to treatment. This test does not include blood smear examination or calculation of parasitemia.

Useful For Suggests clinical disorders or settings where the test may be helpful

Detection of Plasmodium DNA and identification of the infecting species


An adjunct to conventional microscopy of Giemsa-stained films, particularly in cases of low percent parasitemia or suboptimal parasite morphology


Detection and confirmatory identification of Plasmodium species: Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium ovale, Plasmodium malariae, and Plasmodium knowlesi

Interpretation Provides information to assist in interpretation of the test results

A positive result indicates the presence of Plasmodium nucleic acid and melting curve analysis indicates the infecting species.

Cautions Discusses conditions that may cause diagnostic confusion, including improper specimen collection and handling, inappropriate test selection, and interfering substances

Malaria is potentially a life-threatening disease, and it is imperative to test for parasites as rapidly as possible. Therefore, this test is for confirmation only except for clients in the immediate Rochester, Minnesota area who can provide rapid delivery of specimens to Mayo Medical Laboratories.


Assay may be negative in very low parasitemias.


Species of Plasmodium present in mixed infections may not be clearly delineated.


In some instances, the closely related species, Plasmodium ovale and Plasmodium vivax, cannot be differentiated from one another by this test. In this instance, results will be reported as "Plasmodium vivax/Plasmodium ovale." These 2 species have similar prognosis and treatment, and can often be distinguished based on patient travel history.


This is a qualitative test only. If calculation of percent parasitemia is desired, order the LMALP / Malaria with Percent Parasitemia Reflex, Molecular Detection, PCR.


This assay does not distinguish between residual nucleic acid (which may persist after adequate treatment) and viable intact parasites. It also does not distinguish between gametocytes (nonpathogenic forms that may be present in resolving infections) and virulent trophozoites.


Although the reference range is considered "negative" for individuals living in nonendemic areas, this assay may detect low-grade asymptomatic parasitemia from individuals exposed to malaria-endemic areas. However, this assay is designed to detect only Plasmodium species of clinical significance and is to be used for patients with a clinical history and symptoms consistent with malaria. This test should not be used to screen asymptomatic patients.


This PCR assay does not detect other parasites that may be present in the blood and have similar disease presentations including Babesia and Trypanosoma species.

Reference Values Describes reference intervals and additional information for interpretation of test results. May include intervals based on age and sex when appropriate. Intervals are Mayo-derived, unless otherwise designated. If an interpretive report is provided, the reference value field will state this.


Clinical References Provides recommendations for further in-depth reading of a clinical nature

1. Swan H, Sloan L, Muyombwe A, et al: Evaluation of a real-time polymerase chain reaction assay for the diagnosis of malaria in patients from Thailand. Am J Trop Med Hyg 2005 Nov;73(5):850-854

2. World Health Organization Malaria Page: http://www.who.int/topics/malaria/en/

3. Cox-Singh J, Davis T, Lee K, et al: Plasmodium knowlesi malaria in humans is widely distributed and potentially life-threatening. Clin Infect Dis 2008 January 15;46(2):165-171

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