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The pathophysiology of severe falciparum malaria is complex, but evidence is mounting that its central feature is the old concept of a mechanical microcirculatory obstruction. Autopsy studies, but also in vivo observations of the microcirculation, demonstrate variable obstruction of the microcirculation in severe malaria. The principal cause of this is cytoadherence to the vascular endothelium of erythrocytes containing the mature forms of the parasite, leading to sequestration and obstruction of small vessels. Besides, parasitized red cells become rigid, compromising their flow through capillaries whose lumen has been reduced by sequestered erythrocytes. Adhesive forces between infected red cells (auto-agglutination), between infected and uninfected red cells (rosetting) and between uninfected erythrocytes (aggregation) could further slow down microcirculatory flow. A more recent finding is that uninfected erythrocytes also become rigid in severe malaria. Reduction in the overall red cell deformability has a strong predictive value for a fatal outcome. Rigidity may be caused by oxidative damage to the red blood cell membrane by malaria pigment released at the moment of schizont rupture. Anti-oxidants, such as N-acetylcysteine can reverse this effect and are promising as adjunctive treatment in severe malaria.


Journal article


Acta Trop

Publication Date





309 - 317


Humans, Malaria, Falciparum, Microcirculation, Microscopy, Electron, Severity of Illness Index