Background: Rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) play a key role in malaria case management. The most widely used RDT identifies Plasmodium falciparum based on immunochromatographic recognition of P. falciparum histidine-rich protein 2 (PfHRP2). Deletion of the homologous pfhrp2 and pfhrp3 genes leads to false-negative PfHRP2-based RDTs, and has been reported in P. falciparum from South America and Africa. However, identification of pfhrp2/pfhrp3 deletions has usually been based only on failure to amplify these genes using PCR, without confirmation based on protein expression, and our understanding of the true prevalence of deletions is incomplete.
Methods: We investigated pfhrp2 / pfhrp3 deletions in blood samples from cross-sectional surveys in 2012-13 in three regions of varied malaria transmission intensity in Uganda. We evaluated samples with positive Giemsa-stained thick blood smears and negative PfHRP2-based RDTs by PCR amplification of conserved subunit ribosomal DNA for Plasmodium species, PCR amplification of pfhrp2 and pfhrp3 genes to identify deletions, and bead-based immunoassays for expression ofPfHRP2.
Results: Of 3516 samples collected in cross-sectional surveys, 1493 (42.5%) had positive blood smears, of which 96 (6.4%) were RDT-negative. Of these 96 RDT-negative samples, P. falciparum was identified in 56 (58%) and only non-falciparum plasmodial DNA in 40 (42%). In all 56 P. falciparum -positive samples there was a failure to amplify pfhrp2 or pfhrp3 :in 25 (45%) pfhrp2 was not amplified, in 39 (70%) pfhrp3 was not amplified, and in 19 (34%) neither gene was amplified. For the 39 P. falciparum -positive, RDT-negative samples available for analysis of protein expression, PfHRP2 was not identified by immunoassay in only four samples (10.3%); these four samples all had failure to amplify both pfhrp2 and pfhrp3 by PCR. Thus, only four of 96 (4.2%) smear-positive, RDT-negative samples had P. falciparum infections with deletion of pfhrp2 and pfhrp3 confirmed by failure to amplify the genes by PCR and lack of expression of PfHRP2 demonstrated by immunoassay.
Conclusion: False negative RDTs were uncommon, and deletions in pfhrp2 and pfhrp3 explained some of these findings, although most false negatives were not due to deletion of the pfhrp2 and pfhrp3 genes.