Malaria and hiv/aids background

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UNICEF Malaria Technical Note # 6

February 2003

Malaria and HIV/AIDS

As HIV spreads, it interacts with other infectious diseases, facilitated by the increase in numbers of immunosuppressed individuals and because its own clinical course can be altered by other infections. Infectious diseases often ‘synergize’, or negatively affect each other, and this is most noticeable with HIV and tuberculosis (TB). In areas of high HIV prevalence, the incidence of TB infection is increased, with a resultant increase in mortality. In addition, susceptibility to HIV can be increased by other infections, notably sexually transmitted infections (STIs), leading to high rates of HIV transmission in communities with high prevalence of STIs.

In Africa, the HIV pandemic has been superimposed on the longstanding malaria pandemic, where P. falciparum malaria is consistently one of the major causes of infant and child mortality. The high prevalence of both HIV and malaria infection in Africa means that even small interactions between the two could have substantial effects on populations.
With the inception of the Roll Back Malaria partnership in 1998, there was recognition that previous gradual declines in malaria mortality had been reversed during the 1990’s, and that interactions between malaria and HIV could be one contributor.
Early research did not indicate any direct, biological association between HIV and malaria, although it was noted that malaria-associated anaemia treated with unscreened blood transfusions contributed to HIV transmission. In more recent years, three key issues have focussed much of the research effort:

  1. Does HIV/AIDS increase susceptibility to malaria infection or increase severity of acute malarial episodes?

  2. Does malaria infection accelerate progression of HIV/AIDS?

  3. What is the impact of malaria and HIV co-infection during pregnancy?

Current Status:

Effect of HIV on malaria:

HIV infection increases the incidence and severity of clinical malaria. In non-pregnant adults, HIV infection has been found to roughly double the risk of malaria parasitemia and clinical malaria. In east and southern Africa, where HIV prevalence is near 30%, it is estimated that about one-quarter to one-third of clinical malaria in adults (including during pregnancy) can be accounted for by HIV. Little research has been carried out in children, although anaemia from multiple causes is common and associated with increased mortality in HIV-infected children.

Effect of malaria on HIV:

Although the effect of malaria on HIV has not been so well documented, some recent research is now adding to the growing body of evidence. Acute malaria infection increases viral load, and one study found that this increased viral load was reversed by effective malaria treatment. This malaria-associated increase in viral load could lead to increased transmission of HIV and more rapid disease progression, with substantial public health implications.

One recent study found that daily cotrimoxazole prophylaxis among HIV-infected adults reduced malaria incidence by 80% in Uganda. Although this effect would be expected to vary, depending on epidemiological setting and patterns of drug resistance, it may be relevant for both pregnant women and adults more generally.
HIV and malaria co-infection during pregnancy:

Malaria infection is more frequent and more severe in HIV-positive pregnant women in malaria-endemic settings. Multigravidae with HIV infection are similar to primigravidae without HIV infection in terms of susceptibility to, and negative consequences of, malaria infection. Therefore, in the presence of HIV infection, the risk associated with placental malaria appears to be independent of the number of pregnancies.

Pregnant women infected with both malaria and HIV are at higher risk of developing anaemia, delivering a low birthweight infant, and delivering prematurely. Higher viral load increases the likelihood of maternal-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV. Malaria infection during pregnancy increases risks of MTCT in the intrauterine and intrapartum period as well as during the breastfeeding period, presumably by increasing HIV viral load.
More work is needed to examine the effects and public health implications of malaria and HIV.
Technical Issues:

  • If the transient elevation in viral load associated with malaria infection can be reversed with effective malaria treatment (as shown by prospective studies), malaria prevention and control may prove to be beneficial in reducing HIV transmission and slowing progression to AIDS.

  • Large-scale use of trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (cotrimoxazole) for prophylaxis of opportunistic infections in HIV-positive patients, although of possible benefit in reducing the incidence of malaria, may also increase drug pressure for other antifolate combinations. This may potentially accelerate resistance to sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP), which is being increasingly used for the treatment of acute uncomplicated malaria in Africa and antenatal IPT programmes. Conversely, expanding use of SP in Africa might further the development of resistance to cotrimoxazole by other pathogens, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae. The effectiveness of both of these drugs needs to be carefully monitored in country programmes.

  • It is estimated that 5%-10% of new HIV infections are caused by unsafe blood products. This has enormous implications for the management of severe anaemia, including that which occurs during childhood as a result of severe malaria infection (see below).

UNICEF’s Role:

Fighting HIV/AIDS is one of the five organizational priorities under the MTSP, and UNICEF ESARO has identified HIV/AIDS as the “priority of priorities” for the region. As a result, countries are to re-orient their programmes to reflect this priority, creating opportunities for linkage and collaboration across various programme areas.

The association between HIV and malaria highlights the need for prevention and control of both of these global pandemics to be synergistic. In other words, prevention of HIV/AIDS should be viewed as an important component of malaria control in countries with high rates of HIV seroprevalence, and malaria prevention and control should be viewed as an important element in the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS in malaria-endemic countries. This requires the formation of effective partnerships and improved collaboration between the two programme entities. For the co-infected pregnant woman, effective delivery of interventions for the prevention and control of both malaria and HIV, including PMTCT as appropriate, is vital.
The implications for UNICEF country programmes revolve around two key areas:

  1. Management and Control of Anaemia: This is particularly important for two high risk groups, infants and pregnant women. Anaemia related deaths can be reduced by an integrated programme which includes malaria prevention and control, particularly ITNs and intermittent preventive treatment (IPT) for both pregnant women and infants (see WHO/UNICEF joint statement on IPTI). Reducing the incidence of severe anaemia through malaria control activities, and other public health interventions, would lessen the need for the use of possibly unsafe blood products for transfusion.

  1. Improved Antenatal Care: High rates of antenatal attendance by pregnant women in Africa suggest that the effects of HIV and malaria during pregnancy could be approached through a “programme partnership” for improved antenatal care (see Reproductive Health Package technical note). Joint programming to strengthen antenatal care, including access to HIV diagnosis and antiretroviral drugs for PMTCT, in addition to IPT, distribution of ITNs, and improved malaria case management, could have significant impact and long-term benefits for women and children.

Linking two high priority UNICEF programmes (PMTCT and RBM), around efforts to strengthen antenatal care, has the potential to reduce maternal-to-child transmission of HIV and improve outcomes for women and children. In both cases, it is important to monitor coverage of interventions to control anaemia and improve antenatal care, so that the impact of UNICEF country programmes can be assessed.


  • Corbett EL et al, AIDS In Africa III: HIV-1/AIDS and the control of other infectious diseases in Africa. Lancet 2002; 359: 2177-87.

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