A team of scientists at the University of Liverpool has discovered that the combination of viral brain infections and malaria increases the risk of serious complications in Malawian children.

The study, published in the ‘Lancet Global Health’, found that of the children who were admitted with viral brain infections, 32% of these were also found to have malaria.  These patients were more likely to develop serious symptoms, such as seizures, and die.

In a partnership between the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and scientists from the College of Medicine in Malawi, data from 513 children with viral brain infections was analysed.  The findings suggest that the viruses may interact with the malarial parasite to increase the seriousness of the illness.

This is an important finding as up to 70% of children in sub-Saharan Africa with parasitic infections do not present any symptoms.  As a consequence this places a large number of children at risk of developing serious complications if they were also to contract a viral brain infection.

Professor Tom Solomon, of the Institute of Infection and Global Health, said in an interview with the Lancet that “we need to look more carefully for viral infections across the board, particularly in children who have malarial parasites”.  This may result in anti-viral treatment being an important factor in managing the symptoms of children presenting with dual infections.

However the professor also states that “we need more studies to confirm that this is not unique to the population in Malawi and that it is more broadly applicable”.  A 2006 study found similar results in Kenya but with a much smaller sample size and looking at fewer viruses.

Scientists hope that an increased understanding into how pathogens interact with each other may lead to novel treatments for children with apparent viral brain infections, not only in Malawi, but across sub-Saharan Africa.