The global burden of malaria has been substantially reduced over the past two decades. Future efforts to reduce malaria further will require moving beyond the treatment of clinical infections to targeting malaria transmission more broadly in the community. As such, the accurate identification of asymptomatic human infections, which can sustain a large proportion of transmission, is becoming a vital component of control and elimination programmes. We determined the relationship across common diagnostics used to measure malaria prevalence — polymerase chain reaction (PCR), rapid diagnostic test and microscopy — for the detection of Plasmodium falciparum infections in endemic populations based on a pooled analysis of cross-sectional data. We included data from more than 170,000 individuals comparing the detection by rapid diagnostic test and microscopy, and 30,000 for detection by rapid diagnostic test and PCR. The analysis showed that, on average, rapid diagnostic tests detected 41% (95% confidence interval = 26–66%) of PCR-positive infections. Data for the comparison of rapid diagnostic test to PCR detection at high transmission intensity and in adults were sparse. Prevalence measured by rapid diagnostic test and microscopy was comparable, although rapid diagnostic test detected slightly more infections than microscopy. On average, microscopy captured 87% (95% confidence interval = 74–102%) of rapid diagnostic test-positive infections. The extent to which higher rapid diagnostic test detection reflects increased sensitivity, lack of specificity or both, is unclear. Once the contribution of asymptomatic individuals to the infectious reservoir is better defined, future analyses should ideally establish optimal detection limits of new diagnostics for use in control and elimination strategies.
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