Malaria is a major tropical disease infecting approximately 500 million people and causing 1.5 to 2.7 million deaths annually. Ninety percent of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and most of these occur in children less than 5 years old; it is the leading cause of mortality in this age group. This disease is also widespread in Central and South America, Hispaniola, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Oceania, and Southeast Asia. In the United States, individuals at risk include travelers to, and visitors from endemic areas.
Malaria is caused primarily by 4 species of the protozoa Plasmodium: P falciparum, P vivax, P malariae, and P ovale. A fifth Plasmodium species, P knowlesi, is a similar parasite that may be an important source of human infection in some regions of Southeast Asia. Differentiating P falciparum and P knowlesi from other species is important since both can cause life-threatening infections. In addition, P falciparum is typically resistant to many commonly used antimalarial agents such as chloroquine.
Examination of the thin film allows for calculation of malaria percent parasitemia, which can be used to predict prognosis and monitor response to treatment for patients with malaria and babesiosis. The percentage parasitemia represents the percentage of infected red blood cells. This is calculated from representative microscopic fields on the thin blood film. Malarial gametocytes are not included in the calculation since they are not infectious to humans and are not killed by most antimalaria drugs.