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Developing standards for malaria microscopy: external competency assessment for malaria microscopists in the Asia-Pacific

Sania Ashraf1, Angie Kao2, Cecilia Hugo3, Eva M Christophel4*, Bayo Fatunmbi4, Jennifer Luchavez5, Ken Lilley6 and David Bell7

Author Affiliations

1 Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Georgia, USA

2 School of Nursing and Health Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, USA

3 Asian Collaborative Training Network for Malaria (ACTMalaria), Manila, Philippines

4 WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific, Manila, Philippines

5 Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (WHO Collaborating Centre), Alabang, Philippines

6 Australian Army Malaria Institute (WHO Collaborating Centre), Brisbane, Australia

7 Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), Geneva, Switzerland

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Malaria Journal 2012, 11:352  doi:10.1186/1475-2875-11-352

Published: 24 October 2012



Malaria diagnosis has received renewed interest in recent years, associated with the increasing accessibility of accurate diagnosis through the introduction of rapid diagnostic tests and new World Health Organization guidelines recommending parasite-based diagnosis prior to anti-malarial therapy. However, light microscopy, established over 100 years ago and frequently considered the reference standard for clinical diagnosis, has been neglected in control programmes and in the malaria literature and evidence suggests field standards are commonly poor. Microscopy remains the most accessible method for parasite quantitation, for drug efficacy monitoring, and as a reference of assessing other diagnostic tools. This mismatch between quality and need highlights the importance of the establishment of reliable standards and procedures for assessing and assuring quality. This paper describes the development, function and impact of a multi-country microscopy external quality assurance network set up for this purpose in Asia.


Surveys were used for key informants and past participants for feedback on the quality assurance programme. Competency scores for each country from 14 participating countries were compiled for analyses using paired sample t-tests. In-depth interviews were conducted with key informants including the programme facilitators and national level microscopists.


External assessments and limited retraining through a formalized programme based on a reference slide bank has demonstrated an increase in standards of competence of senior microscopists over a relatively short period of time, at a potentially sustainable cost. The network involved in the programme now exceeds 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific, and the methods are extended to other regions.


While the impact on national programmes varies, it has translated in some instances into a strengthening of national microscopy standards and offers a possibility both for supporting revival of national microcopy programmes, and for the development of globally recognized standards of competency needed both for patient management and field research.

Malaria microscopy; Diagnostics; Quality assurance programmes