Ovalocytosis Protects against Severe Malaria Parasitemia in the Malayan Aborigines

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  • Institute for Medical Research, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The malaria parasite rates and densities were compared in 79 ovalocytic-normocytic pairs of Malayan Aborigines matched for age, sex, proximity of residence to each other, and use of bed nets when sleeping in their jungle settlement in central Peninsular Malaysia. Malaria infection was determined from thick and thin Giemsa-stained blood films collected monthly for a period of six months. Blood films from ovalocytic individuals were found to be positive for malaria less often than in persons with normal red blood cells (P < 0.05). Malaria infections per 100 person-months at risk were 9.7 in the ovalocytic group compared with 15.19 in the normocytic group. Among individuals parasitemic at any time, heavy infections (≥ 10,000 parasites/mm3 of blood) with Plasmodium falciparum, P. vivax, and P. malariae were encountered only in normocytic subjects, which comprised approximately 12.5% of the malaria-positive individuals in this group. In an earlier survey of 629 settlers that identified subjects for the above study, the prevalence of ovalocytosis was found to increase significantly with age. The above field observations support the view that ovalocytic individuals might have a survival advantage in the face of malaria. Consideration of the ovalocytic factor is indicated in future evaluations of malaria control measures in areas where ovalocytosis is prevalent.