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Study: Severe Malaria Can be Detected in Eyes  - 2004-09-02

Doctors looking for signs of severe malaria can find them in the eyes. That's according to a new study in the Archives of Ophthalmology.

Malaria kills an estimated one million people worldwide each year, most of them children in sub-Saharan Africa. The most severe form of the disease, cerebral malaria, can cause coma and death. But so can other conditions.

And malaria infection does not always cause symptoms, especially among people in heavily affected countries who develop partial immunity. So Terrie Taylor and her colleagues working at the Malaria Research Project in Blantyre, Malawi, checked comatose children for malaria symptoms in the backs of their eyes.

"And lo and behold, we found four findings that turn out to be very useful in assessing the severity of cerebral malaria in children who are admitted in coma with malaria parasites in their blood," she says.

Ruptured blood vessels in the retina, changes in blood vessel color, whitening of the retina, and swelling of the optic nerve were associated with cerebral malaria. Professor Taylor says the eye exam provides a more reliable way to diagnose the disease. The more severe the retinal symptoms, the more likely the children were to die, or to take longer to recover from a coma.

But Professor Taylor says the eye exam requires expensive equipment. So she says more research is needed to determine if the exam is valuable enough to be used widely.