In eastern Africa where 90% of the malaria is due to Plasmodium falciparum, the accuracy of malaria diagnosis at the outpatient level is becoming increasingly important due to problems of drug resistance and use of alternative, costly antimalarial drugs. The quantitative buffy coat (QBC) technique, acridine orange staining with an interference filter system, and the ParaSight-F test have been introduced as alternative methods to conventional microscopy for the diagnosis of malaria. Two hundred thirteen outpatients were tested using these alternative methods and conventional microscopy by five experienced technologists; two were randomly allocated to read the results of each test. Paired results showed the highest level of agreement with the ParaSight-F test (99%), followed by Field stain (92%). The results of the QBC technique showed the least agreement (73%). Using conventional microscopy as the reference standard, the ParaSight-F test had a sensitivity range of 90-92% and a specificity of 99%, staining with acridine orange had a sensitivity range of 77-96% and a specificity range of 81-98% and the QBC technique had a sensitivity range of 88-98% and a specificity range of 58-90%. All microscopic tests showed lower sensitivities (as low as 20% using staining with acridine orange) in detecting low parasitemias (< or = 320/microl) than the ParaSight-F test (70%). Due to the high cost of the ParaSight-F test, Field-stained blood films remain the most appropriate method for diagnosis of P. falciparum in eastern Africa. The ParaSight-F test may be used in situations where no trained microscopists are available, or where malaria is strongly suspected and the results of microscopy are negative.