Background: Splenic rupture during acute malaria is rare but underreported. Because splenic rupture occurs mostly in non-immune adults, ongoing malaria elimination efforts may paradoxically increase the proportion of Plasmodium-infected patients suffering from this life-threatening complication. The pathogenesis and optimal patient management are still debated.
Method: We collected and analysed reports of pathological rupture of the spleen associated with malaria published over the last 50 years in five languages.
Results: Fifty-five cases were reported, due to Plasmodium falciparum (n=26), Plasmodium vivax (n=23), Plasmodium ovale (n=2), Plasmodium malariae (n=2), or P. vivax-falciparum (n=2), and occurred in travellers (n=24), locals (n=21), expatriates (n=6) or migrants (n=4). Median age was 31.5 years and sex ratio M/F 3.2. Splenic rupture was complete with hemoperitoneum (n=50), or partial (n=5). Death occurred in 12 patients (22%), 8 of whom from early irreversible collapse (n=7) or unexpected death (n=1). Death rate was higher among travellers than in other patients (9/24, 38%, versus 3/31, 10%, p=0.01). Clinical features of P. falciparum- or P. vivax-associated splenic rupture were strikingly similar. Treatment included in-hospital medical observation without surgery (conservative management, n=14), immediate splenectomy (n=29), delayed splenectomy (n=4), or none (patients dying at admission, n=8). The type of treatment, conservative or not, had no influence on prognosis. The median duration of malaria symptoms before diagnosis was longer in our review (5-6 days) than in previous reports on imported malaria (3-4 days), suggesting that early diagnosis and therapy of malaria may reduce the incidence of splenic rupture.
Conclusions: Abdominal pain, collapse, or fainting is warning symptoms. Fourteen published observations support conservative management in carefully selected patients. Spleen preservation likely reduces the risk of future severe malaria attacks in patients with potential further exposition to Plasmodium sp., and also that of overwhelming sepsis in all.