Background: Accurate diagnosis of Plasmodium infections is essential for malaria morbidity and mortality reduction in tropical areas. Despite great advantages of light microscopy (LM) for malaria diagnosis, its limited sensitivity is a critical shortfall for epidemiological studies. Robust molecular diagnostics tools are thus needed.
Methods: The present study describes the development of a duplex quantitative real time PCR (qPCR) assay, which specifically detects and quantifies the four human Plasmodium species. Performance of this method was compared to PCR-ligase detection reaction-fluorescent microsphere assay (PCR_LDR_FMA), nested PCR (nPCR) and LM, using field samples collected from 452 children one to five years of age from the Sepik area in Papua New Guinea. Agreement between diagnostic methods was calcualted using kappa statistics.
Results: The agreement of qPCR with other molecular diagnostic methods was substantial for the detection of P. falciparum, but was moderate for the detection of P. vivax, P. malariae and P. ovale. P. falciparum and P. vivax prevalence by qPCR was 40.9% and 65.7% respectively. This compares to 43.8% and 73.2% by nPCR and 47.1% and 67.5% by PCR_LDR_FMA. P. malariae and P. ovale prevalence was 4.7% and 7.3% by qPCR, 3.3% and 3.8% by nPCR, and 7.7% and 4.4% by PCR_LDR_FMA. Prevalence by LM was lower for all four species, being 25.4% for P. falciparum, 54.9% for P. vivax, 2.4% for P. malariae and 0.0% for P. ovale. The quantification by qPCR closely correlated with microscopic quantification for P. falciparum and P. vivax samples (R2 = 0.825 and R2 = 0.505, respectively). The low prevalence of P. malariae and P. ovale did not permit a solid comparative analysis of quantification for these species.
Conclusions: The qPCR assay developed proved optimal for detection of all four Plasmodium species. Densities by LM were well reflected in quantification results by qPCR, whereby congruence was better for P. falciparum than for P. vivax. This likely is a consequence of the generally lower P. vivax densities. Easy performance of the qPCR assay, a less laborious workflow and reduced risk of contamination, together with reduced costs per sample through reduced reaction volume, opens the possibility to implement qPCR in endemic settings as a suitable diagnostic tool for large epidemiological studies.