Background: Severe disease attributable to Plasmodium vivax infection is already well described worldwide; however, autopsies in these patients are scarce.
Methods: From 1996 to 2010, 19 patient deaths with a clinical diagnosis of P. vivax infection occurred in a tertiary care center in the Brazilian Amazon. Seventeen of these 19 deaths were fully autopsied. Clinical charts, macroscopic autopsy reports, and stored paraffinized tissue blocks were retrieved. Nested polymerase chain reaction was performed in paraffinized samples of spleen and lung to confirm P. vivax monoinfection. Immunohistofluorescence was used to detect P. vivax parasitized red blood cells (RBCs).
Results: Of 17 autopsies, 13 revealed that death could be attributed to P. vivax infection; in the remaining 4, acute diseases other than malaria were found to be the cause of death. The primary complication in patients in which malaria contributed to death was acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and pulmonary edema associated with the accumulation of neutrophils in the interalveolar space (6 cases). Spleen rupture (3 cases) and multiorgan dysfunction syndrome (3 cases) were the second most common complications. One child evolving with coma was also characterized, but no parasite was detected in the brain tissue. In one patient who developed ARDS and presented negative peripheral parasitemia by the time of death, scattered parasitized red blood cells were seen inside pulmonary capillaries, suggesting some sequestration in the lung.
Conclusions: In 13 of 17 deceased patients, P. vivax infection was the plausible cause of death. However, more studies are needed to understand pathogenesis related to severe disease.