Microbiology Case Study: An 18 Year Old with Fever, Chills and Abdominal Pain

Clinical History

An 18 year old male presented to the emergency department (ED) with fever, chills, and generalized lower abdominal pain. He noted the fever began 6 days ago and had been intermittent since that time. He also reported nausea and vomiting with a decrease in appetite. The patient was from India and was treated for malaria 8 months ago, directly prior to arrival in the United States. He stated he received three days of intravenous medications with resolution of symptoms. In the ED, his vitals were blood pressure 129/75, heart rate 133, temperature 104.1°F, respirations 20, and 99% oxygen saturation on room air. On physical exam, patient had mild jaundice and scleral icterus and severe right lower quadrant pain on palpation. CT scan of the abdomen showed mesenteric adenitis, but no appendicitis. Initial laboratory testing showed a mild anemia and thrombocytopenia (hemoglobin 12.1 g/dL, hematocrit 35.9%, platelets 78,000 TH/cm2) and increased indirect bilirubin (2.67 mg/dL). The patient received piperacillin-tazobactam while blood and urine cultures as well as a malaria smear were pending.  

Laboratory Identification

The BinaxNOW lateral flow immunochromatographic assay for Plasmodium spp. was performed.

Image 1. The BinaxNOW assay was positive for malaria protein antigen, representing P. vivax, P. ovale, P. malariae, or a mix of these species.
Image 2. A thin smear showed amoeboid gametocytes in enlarged red blood cells as compared to uninfected cells (Giemsa stain, 100x oil immersion).
Image 3. A thin smear showed very rare trophozoites with thick chromatin bands and single, large chromatin dots (Giemsa stain, 100x oil immersion).

The positive BinaxNOW results and morphologic findings on smear review were most consistent with a P. vivax infection. The level of parasitemia was approximately 0.2%. Blood and urine cultures were negative.

Discussion

Malaria classically presents with fever and chills, weakness, headache, myalgias, nausea, and vomiting in patients who live in tropical and subtropical regions. The four most common species that infect humans through transmission by the female Anopheles mosquito include P. falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, and P. malariae. If malaria is not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner, complications including anemia, thrombocytopenia, renal failure, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and cerebral malaria can result. P. falciparum is the most deadly species due to the parasite’s ability to cause high levels of parasitemia.  

In laboratories in the United States, malaria testing often times incorporates Plasmodium spp. antigen detection via the BinaxNOW assay and peripheral blood smears. While the performance of the BinaxNOW is acceptable, particularly for P. falciparum, thick and thin peripheral blood smears remain the gold standard for malaria diagnosis, especially when the parasitemia level is low. The thick blood smear allows for screening a large amount of blood for malarial parasites and the thin smear allows for species identification and assessment of parasitemia. Ideally, multiple blood smears obtained from different times of the day should be collected in order to exclude the diagnosis. The window prior to a febrile spike is the best time to obtain the specimen, as the number of circulating parasites is greatest.

Clinically, the most important distinction is between P. falciparum and all other species. A number of features including the morphology of the trophozoites, schizonts, and gametocytes, size of the infected red cells, the presence of multiply infected red blood cells, and the region that the patient lives in or traveled to are helpful in determining species level identification.

P. vivax infects enlarged, young red blood cells and multiple trophozoites may be present in one red blood cell. The trophozoites have thick, blue cytoplasm and usually one, large chromatin dot. The schizont can contain 12 to 24 merozoites and the gametocyte is large and oval in shape. Schuffner’s stippling and malarial pigment are common. It is important to correctly identify P. vivax and P. ovale as they have hypnozoite forms in the liver and patients can relapse unless they are treated with an additional medication to eradicate these forms.

In the case of our patient, he received chloroquine, the treatment of choice for P. vivax arising in India. Primaquine and tafenoquine are both options for eradication of the hypnozoite form in the liver. These medications can cause hemolytic anemia in patients with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency so quantification of the enzyme is required prior to administering therapy. Our patient had normal G6PD levels and received tafenoquine as well. 

-Karla Perrizo, MD, is a clinical pathology resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

-Lisa Stempak, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, MS. She is certified by the American Board of Pathology in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology as well as Medical Microbiology. She is the Director of Clinical Pathology as well as the Microbiology and Serology Laboratories. Her interests include infectious disease histology, process and quality improvement, and resident education.

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