Diagnosis of malaria involves identification of malaria parasite or its antigens/products in the blood of the patient. Although this seems simple, the efficacy of the diagnosis is subject to many factors. The different forms of the four malaria species; the different stages of erythrocytic schizogony; the endemicity of different species; the population movements; the inter-relation between the levels of transmission, immunity, parasitemia, and the symptoms; the problems of recurrent malaria, drug resistance, persisting viable or non-viable parasitemia, and sequestration of the parasites in the deeper tissues; and the use of chemoprophylaxis or even presumptive treatment on the basis of clinical diagnosis can all have a bearing on the identification and interpretation of malaria parasitemia on a diagnostic test.

The diagnosis of malaria is confirmed by blood tests and can be divided into microscopic and non-microscopic tests.

Microscopic Tests

The microscopic tests involve staining and direct visualization of the parasite under the microscope. For more than hundred years, the direct microscopic visualization of the parasite on the thick and/or thin blood smears has been the accepted method for the diagnosis of malaria in most settings, from the clinical laboratory to the field surveys. The careful examination of a well-prepared and well-stained blood film currently remains the “gold standard” for malaria diagnosis. The most commonly used microscopic tests include the peripheral smear study and the Quantitative Buffy Coat (QBC) test.

The simplest and surest test is the time-honoured peripheral smear study for malarial parasites. None of the other newer tests have surpassed the ‘gold standard’ peripheral smear study.