Malaria diagnosis is a huge challenge in developing countries where between 350-500 million people are infected with the illness each year. It is estimated that Malaria kills up to 2 million people each year, mainly children. Rapid detection and treatment make a huge impact on survival rates- while there is no cure for Malaria, early intervention with anti-malarial medications are highly effective and can often lead to a full recovery.
Since the 1880s when Malaria was first discovered, diagnosis has been preformed through microscopic examination of the blood or through relying on the patient’s symptoms. Neither of these methods are fool proof. Early symptoms of malaria which include fever, chills, sweats, headaches, muscle pains, nausea, and vomiting could come from a variety of illnesses. Malaria is often misdiagnosed and physicians end up either unnecessarily prescribing medication which ultimately creates drug resistance or failing to identify malaria until it is already full blown which can be fatal.
Today there are two other methods which are more effective. Nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) can detect parasite DNA which is circulating in the blood and it is very sensitive. Unfortunately, the equipment is expensive and requires specialized training. It is also compromised by the fact that parasite DNA stays in the blood after the infection is gone which can lead to a false positive.
Rapid diagnostic tests offer the best potential for malaria diagnosis in the field. Rapid diagnostic tests have been developed to use a finger-stick or venous blood and can be done in 10-15 minutes. They do not require a laboratory and are general more reliable. There is still considerable room for human error but a new handheld device using an USB2.0 cameras are changing the standards. The tester can collect and process all the information in one self contained unit. This portable device can be used by non-clinical staff to identify parasite specific antigens and come in two varieties, a pan-malarial test or a species specific test. Rapid diagnostic tests represent a major leap in malarial detection and in the coming years this will hopefully lead to earlier diagnosis and better treatment.