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APPENDIX: Microscopic Procedures for Diagnosing Malaria

To establish the diagnosis of malaria, a blood smear must be prepared from fresh blood obtained by pricking the finger (Figures A--1 and A--2).* The thin smear is fixed in methanol before staining; the thick smear is stained unfixed. Many hospitals have a Wright-Giemsa stain available, which is acceptable; however, Wright stain alone will not reliably show Plasmodium parasites. For best results, the smear should be stained with a 3% Giemsa solution (pH of 7.2) for 30--45 minutes. In P. falciparum infections, the parasite density should be estimated by counting the percentage of red blood cells infected --- not the number of parasites --- under an oil immersion lens on a thin film.

Thick blood smears are more sensitive in detecting malaria parasites because the blood is concentrated, allowing a greater volume of blood to be examined. However, thick smears are more difficult to read, and thin smears may be preferred by laboratories that have limited experience. Plasmodium parasites are always intracellular, and they demonstrate, if stained correctly, blue cytoplasm with a red chromatin dot. Common errors in reading malaria smears are caused by platelets overlying a red blood cell, concern about missing a positive slide, and misreading artifacts as parasites. Persons suspected of having malaria but whose blood smears do not show the presence of parasites should have blood smears repeated approximately every 12--24 hours for 3 consecutive days. If smears remain negative, then the diagnosis of malaria is unlikely.

For rapid diagnosis, make thick and thin smears on separate slides. Air dry the thin film, fix it with methyl alcohol, and immediately stain it. If no parasites are found on the thin film, wait until the thick film is dry and examine it for organisms that might not have been detected on the thin preparation.

* In Figures A--1 and A--2, the hands are shown ungloved to better illustrate their placement during the procedures. However, wearing gloves while processing blood specimens is recommended to prevent transmission of bloodborne pathogens (MMWR 1988;37:377--82, 387--8 and MMWR 1987;36[No. S2]).


Figure A-1

Figure A-1
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Figure A-2

Figure A-2
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