Deep Breathing in Children with Severe Malaria: Indicator of Metabolic Acidosis and Poor Outcome

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  • Clinical Research Centre, Kenya Medical Research Institute Kilifi Unit, Nuffield Department of Medicine, John Radcliffe Hospital, Kilifi, Kenya

Despite the frequent association of respiratory symptoms and signs with malarial morbidity and mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, the value of individual symptoms and signs has rarely been assessed. We have prospectively examined the association of individual clinical findings with the summary diagnosis of respiratory distress, outcome, and the presence of metabolic acidosis in children admitted with severe malaria to a Kenyan district hospital. Respiratory distress was present in 119 of the 350 children included in the study and in 23 of the 30 deaths (relative risk = 6.5, 95% confidence interval = 2.8–14.4). The features of a history of dyspnea, nasal flaring, and indrawing or deep breathing (Kussmaul's respiration) were individually most closely associated with the summary diagnosis of respiratory distress. Of these, deep breathing, which was sensitive (91%) and specific (83%) for the presence of severe metabolic acidosis (base excess ≤ -12), is the best candidate sign to represent the prognostically important syndrome of malarial respiratory distress. Therefore, it warrants further prospective evaluation in different clinical settings and areas of different malaria endemicity.