Background: Accurate identification of Plasmodium infections in non-endemic countries is of critical importance with regard to the administration of a targeted therapy having a positive impact on patient health and management and allowing the prevention of the risk of re-introduction of endemic malaria in such countries. Malaria is no longer endemic in Italy where it is the most commonly imported disease, with one of the highest rates of imported malaria among European non-endemic countries including France, the UK and Germany, and with a prevalence of 24.3% at the University Hospital of Parma. Molecular methods showed high sensitivity and specificity and changed the epidemiology of imported malaria in several non-endemic countries, highlighted a higher prevalence of Plasmodium ovale, Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium malariae underestimated by microscopy and, not least, brought to light both the existence of two species of P. ovale (Plasmodium ovale curtisi and Plasmodium ovale wallikeri) and the infection in humans by Plasmodium knowlesi, otherwise not detectable by microscopy. Methods: In this retrospective study an evaluation of two real-time PCR assays able to identify P. ovale wallikeri, distinguishing it from P. ovale curtisi, and to detect P. knowlesi, respectively, was performed applying them on a subset of 398 blood samples belonging to patients with the clinical suspicion of malaria. Results: These assays revealed an excellent analytical sensitivity and no cross-reactivity versus other Plasmodium spp. infecting humans, suggesting their usefulness for an accurate and complete diagnosis of imported malaria. Among the 128 patients with malaria, eight P. ovale curtisi and four P. ovale wallikeri infections were detected, while no cases of P. knowlesi infection were observed. Discussion and conclusions: Real-time PCR assays specific for P. ovale wallikeri and P. knowlesi were included in the panel currently used in the University Hospital of Parma for the diagnosis of imported malaria, accomplishing the goal of adhering to the recommendations of the World Health Organization to countries that are malaria-free to include the improvement of the early diagnosis of all cases of imported malaria.
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