In tropical areas, where unsupervised use of antimalarial drugs is common, patients with an illness consistent clinically with severe malaria but with negative blood smears pose a management dilemma. Malaria pigment is evident in peripheral blood leukocytes in greater than 90% of patients with severe malaria. To characterize the clearance kinetics of parasitized erythrocytes and malaria pigment-containing leukocytes, sequential peripheral blood and intradermal smears were assessed in 27 adult Vietnamese patients with severe falciparum malaria. The clearance of parasitized erythrocytes and pigment-containing monocytes (PCMs) followed first order kinetics. The elimination of pigment-containing neutrophils (PCNs) was first order initially, but deviated from this when counts were low. Clearance of peripheral blood PCMs (median clearance time, 216 hours; range, 84 to 492 hours) was significantly slower than that of parasitized erythrocytes (median, 96 hours; range, 36 to 168 hours) or PCNs (median, 72 hours; range, 0 to 168 hours; P < .0001). Intradermal PCM clearance times were the longest of all (median, 12 days; range, 6 to 23 days; significantly longer than peripheral blood PCM clearance, P < .001). Twenty-one (88%) patients still had signs, symptoms, or laboratory features of severe malaria after parasite clearance but before phagocyte pigment clearance. Sixteen of the 23 surviving patients (70%; 95% confidence interval, 50% to 87%) still had intraleukocytic malaria pigment on peripheral blood films 72 hours after parasite clearance. Thus, by determining the distribution of malaria pigment in peripheral blood and intradermal phagocytes, the time since effective antimalarial treatment started can be estimated. Microscopy for intraleukocytic pigment is valuable in the differential diagnosis of severe febrile illnesses in malarious areas where uncontrolled use of antimalarial drugs is widespread.

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