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BACKGROUND: Pregnancy-associated malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum adherence to chondroitin sulfate A in the placental intervillous space is a major cause of low birthweight and maternal anaemia in areas of endemic P falciparum transmission. Adhesion-blocking antibodies that specifically recognise parasite-encoded variant surface antigens (VSA) are associated with resistance to pregnancy-associated malaria. We looked for a possible relation between VSA-specific antibody concentrations, placental infection, and protection from low birthweight and maternal anaemia. METHODS: We used flow cytometry to measure VSA-specific IgG concentrations in plasma samples taken during child birth from 477 Kenyan women selected from a cohort of 910 women on the basis of HIV-1 status, gravidity, and placental histology. We measured VSA expressed by one placental P falciparum isolate and two isolates selected or not selected for chondroitin sulfate A adhesiveness in-vitro. FINDINGS: Concentrations of plasma IgG specific for VSA, expressed by chondroitin sulfate A-adhering parasites (VSA in pregnancy-associated malaria or vsa-pam), increased with gravidity and were associated with placental histological findings. Women with chronic pregnancy-associated malaria and low or absent VSA-PAM-specific IgG had lower haemoglobin values (reduced by 17 g/L; 95% CI 8.1-25.2) and delivered smaller babies (birthweight reduced by 0.26 kg; 0.10-0.55) than did corresponding women with high VSA-PAM-specific IgG. No such relation was shown for concentrations of IgG with specificity for non-pregnancy-associated malaria VSA. INTERPRETATION: VSA-PAM-specific IgG protects against low birthweight and maternal anaemia. Our data indicate an important mechanism of clinical protection against malaria and raise hope for the clinical effectiveness of a potential VSA-based vaccine against pregnancy-associated malaria.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





283 - 289


Animals, Antibodies, Protozoan, Antigens, Protozoan, Antigens, Surface, Cell Adhesion, Chondroitin Sulfates, Erythrocytes, Female, Flow Cytometry, Humans, Immunity, Innate, Immunoglobulin G, Infant, Low Birth Weight, Infant, Newborn, Malaria Vaccines, Malaria, Falciparum, Placenta Diseases, Plasmodium falciparum, Pregnancy, Pregnancy Complications, Parasitic