Background: Naturally acquired malaria immunity has many determinants and, in the absence of immunological markers of protection, studies assessing malaria incidence through clinical endpoints remain an approach to defining immunity acquisition. We investigated the role of age in disease incidence and the effects of chemoprophylaxis on clinical immunity development to Plasmodium falciparum during a randomised controlled trial.
Methods and findings: A total of 415 Tanzanian infants were randomly assigned to receive weekly malaria prophylaxis with Deltaprim (3.125 mg of pyrimethamine plus 25 mg of dapsone) or placebo between the ages of 2 and 12 mo. Children were followed up until 4 y of age. Uncomplicated febrile malaria, severe malaria, and anaemia morbidity were assessed through hospital-based passive surveillance. Compared with the group of control participants, there was a marked reduction in the incidence of clinical malaria, severe malaria, and anaemia in the group of children who had received chemoprophylaxis during the first year of life. After discontinuing the intervention, there was a significant increase in the incidence of clinical malaria for 2 y. The cumulative rates of clinical malaria, by age 4 y, were slightly higher in the group of children who had previously received chemoprophylaxis: 3.22 episodes versus 3.02 episodes in the group of control participants; rate difference 0.20 (95% confidence interval [CI]: -0.21 to 0.59). By age 4 y, the cumulative rates of severe malaria, however, were slightly lower in chemosuppressed children (0.47 versus 0.59) (rate difference -0.12 [95% CI: -0.27 to 0.03]). The number of episodes of anaemia was also slightly lower in chemosuppressed children by age 4 y: 0.93 episodes (95% CI: 0.79 to 0.97) versus 1.12 episodes in the group of control participants (95% CI: 0.97 to 1.28) (rate difference -0.19 [95% CI: -0.40 to 0.01]), respectively.
Conclusions: Reducing exposure to P. falciparum antigens through chemoprophylaxis early in life can delay immunity acquisition. Infants appear to acquire immunity faster than older children, but have a higher risk of developing severe forms of malaria and anaemia. These findings provide insight on the interplay between immunity and exposure-reduction interventions.