Impaired uteroplacental blood flow in pregnancies complicated by falciparum malaria
OBJECTIVE: In endemic areas, maternal malaria infection is usually asymptomatic. However, it is known that infected maternal erythrocytes sequester in the intervillous space of the placenta. There is a strong association between placental malaria infection and both low birth weight (LBW) and severe maternal anemia. We aimed to determine whether impaired uteroplacental blood flow might account for the low infant birth weight associated with maternal falciparum malaria infection. METHODS: This observational study was carried out during a large double-blind, randomized, controlled trial of an antimalarial drug intervention for primigravidae. Nine hundred and ninety-five women were recruited from the antenatal clinic at a district hospital on the Kenya coast and had at least one Doppler ultrasound scan. Uterine artery resistance index and the presence or absence of a diastolic notch were recorded. In the third trimester, blood was taken for hemoglobin and malaria film. RESULTS: Malaria infection at 32-35 weeks of gestation was associated with abnormal uterine artery flow velocity waveforms on the day of blood testing (relative risk (RR) 2.11, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.24-3.59, P = 0.006). This association persisted after controlling for pre-eclampsia. Impaired uteroplacental blood flow in the women studied was also predictive of poor perinatal outcome, including low birth weight, preterm delivery and perinatal death. The risk of preterm delivery in women with histological evidence of past placental malaria infection was more than twice that of women without infection (RR 2.33, 95% CI 1.31-4.13, P = 0.004). CONCLUSIONS: Uteroplacental hemodynamics are altered in the presence of maternal falciparum malaria infection. This may account for some of the excess of LBW babies observed in malaria endemic areas. Strategies that prevent or clear placental malaria may confer perinatal benefit through preservation of placental function.