Effects of Malaria During Pregnancy on Infant Immunity: A Key Global Health Study

Dr. Norma Goodwin, Founder and President of Health Power for Minorities, interviews Dr, Whitney Harrington, Principal Investigator, who led a recent study of pregnant mothers in Tanzania who developed malaria during pregnancy.  The study was conducted at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  Dr. Harrington of the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital, was assisted in the study by Dr. J. Lee Nelson, Fred Hutch microchimerism researcher.

Health Power: Please summarize the key findings of the study.Dr. Whitney Harrington


Dr. Harrington: A recent study of pregnant mothers in Tanzania who had malaria found that these women tended to pass more of their own cells to their babies and in the process, have a unique exchange of cells between mother and child, known as “microchimerism”.  When the mosquito-borne malaria parasites infected the placenta of the pregnant mothers, unexpected results occurred.

Health Power: We understand that key study findings were thought to be possibly related to one or more of the following:

  • Mothers infected with malaria during pregnancy can pass more of their own cells to their babies resulting in a protective effect on their infants.  The mother’s cells can directly act as part of the child’s immune system, even after birth;
  • The mother’s immune cell directly recognizes and act on the malaria parasite in the child’s body; and/or
  • The immune cells act indirectly by teaching the child’s immune system how to recognize and react to the pathogen.

Dr. Harrington:  To understand how maternal “microchimerism” and malaria might interact, the researchers examined 53 umbilical cord blood samples from pregnant women and their babies.  Although about half of the 53 women in their study had placental malaria, and  about half of those infected women had what’s called inflammatory placental malaria, none of the babies in the study developed malaria in utero.  This seemed to be a protective effect, for which the rationale is to be studied further. Malaria in Pregnancy Image Hutch

Health Power:  We also understand that increased maternal “microchimerism” affected the babies’ risk with higher levels of their mothers’ cells were more likely to get malaria in the future.  However, their infections were much milder than usual, suggesting that the cells transferred from their mothers might confer some protection against malaria.


Dr. Harrington:  In planned further study, we will assess how the maternal and infant cells interact to affect future malaria risk.  We also want to determine whether, and for how long, the high levels of maternal cells persist during the children’s lives.

Health Power:  Thank you for sharing information about this important global health study with our Health Power audience, and do keep us informed about your subsequent findings.

Image Source: “Malaria in pregnancy” created by Kim Carney


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