Abandoning Presumptive Antimalarial Treatment for Febrile Children Aged Less Than Five Years—A Case of Running Before We Can Walk?

Mike English, Hugh Reyburn, Catherine Goodman, Robert W. Snow. English M, Reyburn H, Goodman C, Snow RW (2009)
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Background to the debate: Current guidelines recommend that all fever episodes in African children be treated presumptively with antimalarial drugs. But declining malarial transmission in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, declining proportions of fevers due to malaria, and the availability of rapid diagnostic tests mean it may be time for this policy to change. This debate examines whether enough evidence exists to support abandoning presumptive treatment and whether African health systems have the capacity to support a shift toward laboratory-confirmed rather than presumptive diagnosis and treatment of malaria in children under five. In this Viewpoint, Mike English and colleagues argue against abandoning presumptive treatment for under-fives. Blaise Genton and colleagues present the opposing Viewpoint in a related article: D’Acremont V, Lengeler C, Mshinda H, Mtasiwa D, Tanner M, et al. (2009) Time to move from presumptive malaria treatment to laboratory-confirmed diagnosis and treatment in African children with fever. PLoS Med 6(1): e252. doi:10.1371/journal. pmed.0050252 No one would argue against the tenet that children in low-income settings should receive the highest quality of clinical care. System-wide provision of accurate and reliable treatment to those with true malaria is a major goal. However, we caution against rapid universal policy change that abandons presumptive antimalarial treatment for African children under five with fever for two reasons. Firstly, important evidence gaps remain. Secondly, the health system capacity to implement such a policy shift has not been demonstrated. If anxiety about drug costs (which are falling) and optimism that malaria is being defeated drive rapid policy change, this may result in hurried policy doing more harm than good.