Background: Asymptomatic Plasmodium spp. infections and anemia are highly prevalent conditions in tropical regions. We studied whether asymptomatic parasitemia induces hepcidin- and/or cytokine-mediated iron maldistribution and anemia.
Design and methods: A group of 1197 Indonesian schoolchildren, aged 5-15 years, were screened by microscopy for the presence of parasitemia. Concentrations of hemoglobin, serum hepcidin and parameters of iron status and inflammation were determined at baseline and 4 weeks after antimalarial treatment.
Results: Asymptomatic P. falciparum and P. vivax parasitemia were detected in 73 (6.1%) and 18 (1.5%) children, respectively, of whom 84% and 83% had a C-reactive protein concentration below 5 mg/L. Children with P. falciparum or P. vivax parasitemia had significantly lower hemoglobin concentrations than 17 aparasitemic controls (12.6 and 12.2 g/dL versus 14.4 g/dL; P<0.01), together with significantly higher serum hepcidin concentrations (5.2 and 5.6 nM versus 3.1 nM; P<0.05). The latter was associated with signs of iron maldistribution with higher ferritin concentrations and lower values of serum iron concentration, transferrin saturation and erythrocyte mean cell volume. Concentrations of growth differentiation factor 15 were similar across groups. Antimalarial treatment partly reversed these abnormalities and led to a significant increase in hemoglobin concentration.
Conclusions: Asymptomatic malarial parasitemia is associated with increased hepcidin concentrations and anemia, in the absence of a manifest acute phase response. Prolonged iron maldistribution may be an underestimated cause of anemia. Screening for parasitemia should be performed before starting iron supplementation, as iron therapy may be less effective and even hazardous in these circumstances.