Knowledge of how malaria infections spread locally is important both for the design of targeted interventions aiming to interrupt malaria transmission and the design of trials to assess the interventions. A previous analysis of 1602 genotyped Plasmodium falciparum parasites in Kilifi, Kenya collected over 12 years found an interaction between time and geographic distance: the mean number of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) differences was lower for pairs of infections which were both a shorter time interval and shorter geographic distance apart. We determine whether the empiric pattern could be reproduced by a simple model, and what mean geographic distances between parent and offspring infections and hypotheses about genotype-specific immunity or a limit on the number of infections would be consistent with the data. We developed an individual-based stochastic simulation model of households, people and infections. We parameterized the model for the total number of infections, and population and household density observed in Kilifi. The acquisition of new infections, mutation, recombination, geographic location and clearance were included. We fit the model to the observed numbers of SNP differences between pairs of parasite genotypes. The patterns observed in the empiric data could be reproduced. Although we cannot rule out genotype-specific immunity or a limit on the number of infections per individual, they are not necessary to account for the observed patterns. The mean geographic distance between parent and offspring malaria infections for the base model was 0.5 km (95% CI 0.3-1.5), for a distribution with 68% of distances shorter than the mean. Very short mean distances did not fit well, but mixtures of distributions were also consistent with the data. For a pathogen which undergoes meiosis in a setting with moderate transmission and a low coverage of infections, analytic methods are limited but an individual-based model can be used with genotyping data to estimate parameter values and investigate hypotheses about underlying processes.
Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Basel, Switzerland.