There are over a hundred different species of the malaria-causing Plasmodium parasites in reptiles, birds and mammals. Being so widespread among terrestrial vertebrates, zoonotic transfer of Plasmodium has come at humans from multiple different sources. Plasmodium knowlesi had been known for some time as a parasite of long-tailed macaques but was not considered a significant human parasite until 2004 when a large number of human infections were identified in Borneo. Molecular analysis implies that Plasmodium knowlesi is as old as Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum.
Diagnosis is complicated by the histological similarity between Plasmodium knowlesi and Plasmodium malariae. They can’t be distinguished in blood smears like those shown here, so infections were most often misdiagnosed as P. malariae even though they cause a quotidian (daily) fever. The WHO recommends that microscopic detection in areas where P. knowlesi is found report positive results as “P. malariae/P. knowlesi”. It can only be securely diagnosed by molecular methods that can distinguish all five human malarial species. PCR based detection methods have shown promise but no one method has been clinically tested with a large enough number of cases to become the standard of care. Antibody-based Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDT dipstick tests) for malaria do not reliably detect knowlesi malaria which was discovered in humans after the RDT tests were developed. For now in resource poor areas, microscopic analysis followed by molecular testing where available is the only way to detect knowlesi malaria. Clinical research continues for a RDT test that can be employed areas with poor laboratory resources.
Infections have now been confirmed in all of the countries of southeast Asia. Between 2000 and 2011, 881 cases of local P. knowlesi local transmission have been identified in Borneo, with only 8 cases of P. malariae. It is now suspected that past diagnoses of P. malariae in the region were actually P. knowlesi. Unlike other forms of malaria, P. knowlesi infects more adults than children, although actual infection rates are still not known.
Long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques are the reservoirs for P. knowlesi. In some areas of Malaysia the macaques are around 90% seropositive for malaria, in one study 87% were P. knowlesi. The malaria vector for P. knowlesi and other malarial parasites is Anopheles leucosphyrus group which is also concentrated in southeastern Asia. Anopheles balabacensis is the most efficient vector, capable of transmitting P. knowlesi from monkey-to-human, human-to-human and human-to-monkey. A. latens, on the other hand, has been most commonly indicated as the vector to humans in Borneo, where it feeds in the high elevation canopy. As the map below shows, the macacque reservoir and the mosquito vectors are limited to the islands and peninsulas south-east Asia. It has been hypothesized, based on genetic diversity, that P. knowlesi has caused human malaria as long as humans, macaques and the Anopheles vectors have all been on the islands of south-east Asia.
Difficulty in diagnosis has made it made it challenging to study the full spectrum of knowlesi malaria across the population. What studies have been done show that it produces a full spectrum of malarial disease from mild to fatal. Most cases reported to-date are in adult males, making an occupational exposure a significant possibility.
Symptoms are representative of other malarial infections: fever, chills and rigor, headache, along with a cough, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Gastrointestinal symptoms correlate with high levels of the parasite in the blood. Thrombocytopenia (low platelet counts) is the most common clinical finding and more severe than in either vivax or falciparum malaria, while anemia appears to be mild in knowlesi malaria. In the few pediatric cases that have been observed, they all responded to anti-malarial therapy. In the few cases of severe disease reported, abdominal symptoms have been so severe in some that malaria was not initially suspected. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) has been reported in about 50% of severe cases and acute renal failure in approximately 40%. There have not yet been enough confirmed cases of knowlesi malaria to accurately determine the case fatality rate. Although it appears to respond to a wide range of anti-malarial drugs, an optimized treatment based on a sufficient number of cases was not yet available in 2013.
The discovery of Plasmodium knowlesi in humans comes in the context of increasingly successful control of vivax and falciparum malaria in southeastern Asia. Some of the latest epidemiology from Malaysia suggest that 50-60% of the cases of malaria are now knowlesi. There are fears that knowlesi will jeopardize regional malaria elimination efforts. Is the rate really increasing or is it only apparent as levels of falciparum and vivax decrease? Does a real increase represent an opening niche for knowlesi as vivax and falciparum decrease? Only time and more data will answer our questions.
Singh, B., & Daneshvar, C. (2013). Human Infections and Detection of Plasmodium knowlesi. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 26(2), 165–184. doi:10.1128/CMR.00079-12
For additional epidemiology from Malaysia:
Yusof, R., Lau, Y. L., Mahmud, R., Fong, M. Y., Jelip, J., Ngian, H. U., et al. (2014). High proportion of knowlesi malaria in recent malaria cases in Malaysia, Malaria Journal 13(1), 1–9. doi:10.1186/1475-2875-13-168
William, T., Jelip, J., Menon, J., Anderios, F., Mohammad, R., Mohammad, T. A. A., et al. (2014). Changing epidemiology of malaria in Sabah, Malaysia: increasing incidence of Plasmodium knowlesi, Malaria Journal 13(1), 1–11. doi:10.1186/1475-2875-13-390