What is Plasmodium Falciparum?

J.M. Willhite

The protozoan parasite responsible for the development of a potentially fatal form of malarial infection in humans is known as Plasmodium falciparum. Associated with the most serious presentations of malaria, Plasmodium falciparum may be transmitted through a bite from an infected mosquito or receiving a blood transfusion from an infected individual. Considered a medical emergency, the resulting malarial infection necessitates immediate hospitalization and the administration of anti-malarial medications. If left untreated, a Plasmodium falciparum presence can devastate an individual’s blood cells and cause widespread organ failure.

Plasmodium falciparum parasite is often spread by mosquitoes.
Plasmodium falciparum parasite is often spread by mosquitoes.

Individuals who acquire a malarial infection may remain asymptomatic, meaning they experience no symptoms, for up to one year following initial exposure. More frequently, infected individuals begin to exhibit a diverse range of signs and symptoms within one month of exposure. The most common symptoms associated with this parasitic infection are flu-like in their presentation, such as nausea, chills, and vomiting. Some individuals may develop a yellowish hue to their skin, a condition known as jaundice, or bloody stool. Additional symptoms associated with the presence of Plasmodium falciparum include profuse sweating, muscle discomfort, and headaches.

Malaria can be spread via a contaminated blood transfusion.
Malaria can be spread via a contaminated blood transfusion.

If left untreated, the presence of malarial infection can induce life-threatening complications. The destruction of red blood cells that presents with the manifestation of this protozoan parasite can result in hemolytic anemia, which occurs when red blood cells reach dangerously low levels. Extensive organ failure may also occur due to the disruption of proper blood cell balance. Additionally, individuals may hemorrhage or develop meningitis in the presence of widespread parasitic infection.

Carried by infected mosquitoes, Plasmodium falciparum settles in the liver before ultimately invading the blood stream where it attacks and destroys red blood cells. The resulting annihilation of red blood cells contributes to the development of malarial-induced anemia. Once the parasite enters the liver, it matures and produces aggressive “offspring” known as merozoites. The liver is soon overrun with merozoites that continue to reproduce and mature causing their host cells to rupture, spilling the parasitic organisms into the blood stream. The presence of resulting infection, known as malaria, can result in an anemic condition if the invasive contagion remains untreated.

Frequently diagnosed through a physical examination and blood test, the presence of Plasmodium falciparum is generally treated with the aggressive administration of anti-malarial medications, such as hydroxychloroquine sulfate and chloroquine hydrochloride. Individuals may also be given intravenous (IV) nutrients and fluids to help stabilize their condition and prevent complications, including dehydration. In cases where the parasitic presence has become invasive to the respiratory system or has otherwise compromised respiration, mechanical ventilation may be utilized to ease breathing.

Individuals should demonstrate proactive measures to prevent contracting or spreading Plasmodium falciparum. Those who are traveling to areas where Plasmodium falciparum is known to be of concern are encouraged to take anti-malarial medications prior to leaving and upon returning home. Since the congenital transmission of malarial infection is possible, pregnant women at risk for such parasitic exposure may be encouraged to take anti-malarial medications.

During hospitalization, fluid and electrolyte replacement is typically necessary.
During hospitalization, fluid and electrolyte replacement is typically necessary.

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