Open Access

Acute respiratory infection and bacteraemia as causes of non-malarial febrile illness in African children: a narrative review


Received: 20 May 2014

Accepted: 13 March 2015

Published: 29 May 2015


The replacement of “presumptive treatment for malaria” by “test before treat” strategies for the management of febrile illness is raising awareness of the importance of knowing more about the causes of illness in children who are suspected to have malaria but return a negative parasitological test. The most common cause of non-malarial febrile illness (NMFI) in African children is respiratory tract inflection. Whilst the bacterial causes of NMFI are well known, the increasing use of sensitive techniques such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests is revealing large numbers of viruses that are potential respiratory pathogens. However, many of these organisms are commonly present in the respiratory tract of healthy children so causality and risk factors for pneumonia remain poorly understood. Inflection with a combination of viral and bacterial pathogens is increasingly recognised as important in the pathogenesis of pneumonia. Similarly, blood stream inflections with organisms typically grown by aerobic culture are well known but a growing number of organisms that can be identified only by PCR, viral culture, or serology are now recognised to be common pathogens in African children. The high mortality of hospitalised children on the first or second day of admission suggests that, unless results are rapidly available, diagnostic tests to identify specific causes of illness will still be of limited use in guiding the potentially life saving decisions relating to initial treatment of children admitted to district hospitals in Africa with severe febrile illness and a negative test for malaria. Malaria control and the introduction of vaccines against Haemophilus influenzae type b and pneumococcal disease are contributing to improved child survival in Africa. However, increased parasitological testing for malaria is associated with increased use of antbiotics to which resistance is already high.