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Background: Low malaria parasite densities in pregnancy are a diagnostic challenge. PCR provides high sensitivity and specificity in detecting low density of parasites, but cost and technical requirements limit its application in resources-limited settings. Pooling samples for PCR detection was explored to estimate prevalence of submicroscopic malaria infection in pregnant women at delivery. Previous work uses gold-standard based methods to calculate sensitivity and specificity of tests, creating a challenge when newer methodologies are substantially more sensitive than the gold standard. Thus prevalence was estimated using Bayesian latent class models (LCMs) in this study. Methods: Nested PCR (nPCR) for the 18S rRNA gene subunit of Plasmodium falciparum was conducted to detect malaria infection in microscopy-negative Malawian women on IPTp. Two-step sample pooling used dried blood spot samples (DBSs) collected from placenta or periphery at delivery. Results from nPCR and histology as well as previously published data were used to construct LCMs to estimate assay sensitivity and specificity. Theoretical confidence intervals for prevalence of infection were calculated for two-step and one-step pooling strategies. Results: Of 617 microscopy-negative Malawian women, 39 (6.3%) were identified as actively infected by histology while 52 (8.4%) were positive by nPCR. One hundred forty (22.7%) individuals had past infection assessed by histology. With histology as a reference, 72% of women in the active infection group, 7.1% in the past infection group and 3.2% in histology-negative group were nPCR positive. Using latent class models without a gold standard, histology had a median sensitivity of 49.7% and specificity of 97.6% for active infection while PCR had a median sensitivity of 96.0% and specificity of 99.1%. The true prevalence of active infection was estimated at 8.0% (CI: 5.8-10.5%) from PCR. PCR also had similar sensitivity for detecting either peripheral or placental malaria for submicroscopic infections. One-step pooling would give similar confidence intervals for pool sizes less than 20 while reducing the number of tests performed. Conclusions: Pooled nPCR testing was a sensitive and resource-efficient strategy and LCMs provided precise prevalence estimates of submicroscopic infections. Compared to two-step pooling, one-step pooling could provide similar prevalence estimates at population levels with many fewer tests required.
Zhou, Z., Mitchell, R. M., Gutman, J., Wiegand, R. E., Mwandama, D. A., Mathanga, D. P., … Shi, Y. P. (2014). Pooled PCR testing strategy and prevalence estimation of submicroscopic infections using Bayesian latent class models in pregnant women receiving intermittent preventive treatment at Machinga District Hospital, Malawi, 2010. Malaria Journal, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2875-13-509