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BACKGROUND: We investigated the poorly understood impact of declining malaria transmission on maintenance of antibodies to P. falciparum merozoite antigens and infected erythrocytes (IEs), including functional immunity.
METHODS: In a 3-year longitudinal cohort of 300 Kenyan children, antibodies to different merozoite AMA1 and MSP2 alleles, IE surface antigens, and antibody functional activities were quantified.
RESULTS: Over a period in which malaria transmission declined markedly, AMA1 and MSP2 antibodies decreased substantially; estimated half-lives of antibody duration were 0.8 and 1-3 years, respectively. However, 69-74% of children maintained their sero-positivity to AMA1 alleles and 42-52% to MSP2 alleles. Levels and prevalence of anti-merozoite antibodies were consistently associated with increasing age and concurrent parasitaemia. Antibodies promoting opsonic phagocytosis of merozoites declined rapidly (half-life 0.15 years). In contrast, complement-fixing antibodies to merozoites did not decline and antibodies to IE surface antigens expressing virulent phenotypes were much better maintained (half-life 4-10 years).
CONCLUSIONS: A decline in malaria transmission is associated with reduction in naturally-acquired immunity. However, loss of immunity is not universal; some key functional responses and antibodies to IEs were better maintained and these may continue to provide some protection. Findings have implications for malaria surveillance and control measures and informing vaccine development.