Background: Microvascular obstruction and endothelial dysfunction have both been linked to tissue hypoperfusion in falciparum malaria, but their relative contributions to the disease's pathogenesis and outcome are unknown.
Methods: Microvascular blood flow was quantified in adults with severe falciparum malaria on their admission to hospital; plasma biomarkers of endothelial function were measured simultaneously. The relationship between these indices and the patients' clinical findings and in-hospital course was examined.
Results: Microvascular obstruction was observed in 119/142 (84 %) patients; a median (interquartile range (IQR)) of 14.9 % (6.6-34.9 %) of capillaries were obstructed in patients that died versus 8.3 % (1.7-26.6 %) in survivors (P = 0.039). The proportion of obstructed capillaries correlated with the estimated parasite biomass (rs = 0.25, P = 0.004) and with plasma lactate (rs = 0.38, P <0.0001), the strongest predictor of death in the series. Plasma angiopoietin-2 (Ang-2) concentrations were markedly elevated suggesting widespread endothelial activation; the median (IQR) Ang-2 concentration was 21.9 ng/mL (13.4-29.4 ng/mL) in patients that died versus 14.9 ng/mL (9.8-29.3 ng/mL) in survivors (P = 0.035). Ang-2 concentrations correlated with estimated parasite biomass (rs = 0.35, P <0.001) and plasma lactate (rs = 0.37, P <0.0001). Microvascular obstruction and Ang-2 concentrations were not significantly correlated with each other (rs = 0.17, P = 0.06), but were independently associated with plasma lactate (P <0.001 and P = 0.002, respectively).
Conclusions: Microvascular obstruction and systemic endothelial activation are independently associated with plasma lactate, the strongest predictor of death in adults with falciparum malaria. This supports the hypothesis that the two processes make an independent contribution to the pathogenesis and clinical manifestations of the disease.