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Previous analyses have suggested that immunity to non-cerebral severe malaria due to Plasmodium falciparum is acquired after only a few infections, whereas longitudinal studies show that some children experience multiple episodes of severe disease, suggesting that immunity may not be acquired so quickly. We fitted a mathematical model for the acquisition and loss of immunity to severe disease to the age distribution of severe malaria cases stratified by symptoms from a range of transmission settings in Tanzania, combined with data from several African countries on the age distribution and overall incidence of severe malaria. We found that immunity to severe disease was acquired more gradually with exposure than previously thought. The model also suggests that physiological changes, rather than exposure, may alter the symptoms of disease with increasing age, suggesting that a later age at infection would be associated with a higher proportion of cases presenting with cerebral malaria regardless of exposure. This has consequences for the expected pattern of severe disease as transmission changes. Careful monitoring of the decline in immunity associated with reduced transmission will therefore be needed to ensure rebound epidemics of severe and fatal malaria are avoided.

Original publication




Journal article


Proceedings. Biological sciences

Publication Date





MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling, Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London, London W2 1PG, UK


Humans, Plasmodium falciparum, Malaria, Falciparum, Incidence, Prospective Studies, Seasons, Age Distribution, Models, Theoretical, Adolescent, Child, Child, Preschool, Infant, Infant, Newborn, Africa, Tanzania, Young Adult