Background: Transmission of Plasmodium falciparum generally decreases with increasing elevation, in part because lower temperature slows the development of both parasites and mosquitoes. However, other aspects of the terrain, such as the shape of the land, may affect habitat suitability for Anopheles breeding and thus risk of malaria transmission. Understanding these local topographic effects may permit prediction of regions at high risk of malaria within the highlands at small spatial scales.
Methods: Hydrologic modelling techniques were adapted to predict the flow of water across the landscape surrounding households in two communities in the western Kenyan highlands. These surface analyses were used to generate indices describing predicted water accumulation in regions surrounding the study area. Households with and without malaria were compared for their proximity to regions of high and low predicted wetness. Predicted wetness and elevation variables were entered into bivariate and multivariate regression models to examine whether significant associations with malaria were observable at small spatial scales.
Results: On average, malaria case households (n = 423) were located 280 m closer to regions with very high wetness indices than non-malaria "control" households (n = 895) (t = 10.35, p < 0.0001). Distance to high wetness indices remained an independent predictor of risk after controlling for household elevation in multivariate regression (OR = 0.93 [95% confidence interval = 0.89-0.96] for a 100 m increase in distance). For every 10 m increase in household elevation, there was a 12% decrease in the odds of the house having a malaria case (OR = 0.88 [0.85-0.90]). However, after controlling for distance to regions of high predicted wetness and the community in which the house was located, this reduction in malaria risk was not statistically significant (OR = 0.98 [0.94-1.03]).
Conclusion: Proximity to terrain with high predicted water accumulation was significantly and consistently associated with increased household-level malaria incidence, even at small spatial scales with little variation in elevation variables. These results suggest that high wetness indices are not merely proxies for valley bottoms, and hydrologic flow models may prove valuable for predicting areas of high malaria risk in highland regions. Application in areas where malaria surveillance is limited could identify households at higher risk and help focus interventions.