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Background: Naturally acquired immunity to malaria may be lost with lack of exposure. Recent heterogeneous reductions in transmission in parts of Africa mean that large populations of previously protected people may lose their immunity while remaining at risk of infection. Methods: Using two ethnically similar long-term cohorts of children with historically similar levels of exposure to Plasmodium falciparum who now experience very different levels of exposure, we assessed the effect of decreased parasite exposure on antimalarial immunity. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from children in each cohort were stimulated with P. falciparum and their P. falciparum-specific proliferative and cytokine responses were compared. Results: We demonstrate that, while P. falciparum-specific CD4+ T cells are maintained in the absence of exposure, the proliferative capacity of these cells is altered considerably. P. falciparum-specific CD4+ T cells isolated from children previously exposed, but now living in an area of minimal exposure ("historically exposed") proliferate significantly more upon stimulation than cells isolated from children continually exposed to the parasite. Similarly, PBMCs from historically exposed children expressed higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and lower levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines after stimulation with P. falciparum. Notably, we found a significant positive association between duration since last febrile episode and P. falciparum-specific CD4+ T cell proliferation, with more recent febrile episodes associated with lower proliferation. Conclusion: Considered in the context of existing knowledge, these data suggest a model explaining how immunity is lost in absence of continuing exposure to P. falciparum.
Bediako, Y., Ngoi, J. M., Nyangweso, G., Wambua, J., Opiyo, M., Nduati, E. W., … Ndungu, F. M. (2016). The effect of declining exposure on T cell-mediated immunity to Plasmodium falciparum - an epidemiological “natural experiment.” BMC Medicine, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-016-0683-6