Loss of population levels of immunity to malaria as a result of exposure-reducing interventions: consequences for interpretation of disease trends

PLoS One. 2009;4(2):e4383. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004383. Epub 2009 Feb 9.


Background: The persistence of malaria as an endemic infection and one of the major causes of childhood death in most parts of Africa has lead to a radical new call for a global effort towards eradication. With the deployment of a highly effective vaccine still some years away, there has been an increased focus on interventions which reduce exposure to infection in the individual and -by reducing onward transmission-at the population level. The development of appropriate monitoring of these interventions requires an understanding of the timescales of their effect.

Methods & findings: Using a mathematical model for malaria transmission which incorporates the acquisition and loss of both clinical and parasite immunity, we explore the impact of the trade-off between reduction in exposure and decreased development of immunity on the dynamics of disease following a transmission-reducing intervention such as insecticide-treated nets. Our model predicts that initially rapid reductions in clinical disease incidence will be observed as transmission is reduced in a highly immune population. However, these benefits in the first 5-10 years after the intervention may be offset by a greater burden of disease decades later as immunity at the population level is gradually lost. The negative impact of having fewer immune individuals in the population can be counterbalanced either by the implementation of highly-effective transmission-reducing interventions (such as the combined use of insecticide-treated nets and insecticide residual sprays) for an indefinite period or the concurrent use of a pre-erythrocytic stage vaccine or prophylactic therapy in children to protect those at risk from disease as immunity is lost in the population.

Conclusions: Effective interventions will result in rapid decreases in clinical disease across all transmission settings while population-level immunity is maintained but may subsequently result in increases in clinical disease many years later as population-level immunity is lost. A dynamic, evolving intervention programme will therefore be necessary to secure substantial, stable reductions in malaria transmission.

MeSH terms

  • Africa / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Malaria / immunology*
  • Malaria / prevention & control*
  • Malaria / transmission
  • Malaria Vaccines / immunology
  • Models, Biological*
  • Population Groups
  • Population Surveillance / methods


  • Malaria Vaccines