In sub-Saharan Africa, malaria in the first half of pregnancy is harmful for both the mother and her fetus. However, malaria in the first trimester of pregnancy, when women are usually not protected against malaria, has been little investigated. For the first time, we assessed the effects of malaria in the first trimester on maternal and birth outcomes using a preconceptional study design.
From June 2014 to March 2017, 1214 women of reproductive age were recruited and followed monthly until 411 became pregnant. The pregnant women were then followed from 5-6 weeks of gestation until delivery. Path analysis was used to assess the direct effect (ie, not mediated by malaria in the second or third trimester) of malaria in the first trimester on maternal anemia and poor birth outcomes. The cumulative effect of infections during pregnancy on the same outcomes was also evaluated.
The prevalence of malaria infections in the first trimester was 21.8%. Malaria in the first trimester was significantly associated with maternal anemia in the third trimester (adjusted odds ratio 2.25, 95% confidence interval 1.11-4.55). While we did not find evidence of any direct effect of first trimester malaria infections on birth outcomes, their association with infections later in pregnancy tended to increase the risk of low birth weights.
Malaria infections in the first trimester were highly prevalent and have deleterious effects on maternal anemia. They highlight the need for additional preventive measures, starting in early pregnancy or even before conception.