Blackwater fever

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Blackwater fever
Classification and external resources
Specialty infectious disease
ICD-10 B50
ICD-9-CM 084.8
DiseasesDB 7751
MeSH D001742

Blackwater fever is a complication of malaria infection in which red blood cells burst in the bloodstream (hemolysis), releasing hemoglobin directly into the blood vessels and into the urine, frequently leading to kidney failure. The disease was first linked to malaria by the Sierra Leonean physician Dr John Farrell Easmon in his 1884 pamphlet entitled The Nature and Treatment of Blackwater Fever. Easmon coined the name "blackwater fever" and was the first to successfully treat such cases following the publication of his pamphlet.

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Within a few days of onset there are chills, with rigor, high fever, jaundice, vomiting, rapidly progressive anemia, and dark red or black urine.


The cause of hemolytic crises in this disease is unknown (mainly due to intravascular haemolysis). There is rapid and massive destruction of red blood cells resulting in hemoglobinemia (hemoglobin in the blood, but outside the red blood cells), hemoglobinuria (hemoglobin in urine), intense jaundice, anuria (passing less than 50 milliliters of urine in a day), and finally death in the majority of cases.

The most probable explanation for blackwater fever is an autoimmune reaction apparently caused by the interaction of the malaria parasite and the use of quinine. Blackwater fever is caused by heavy parasitization of red blood cells with Plasmodium falciparum. There has been at least one case, however, attributed to Plasmodium vivax.[1]

Blackwater fever is a serious complication of malaria, but cerebral malaria has a higher mortality rate. Blackwater fever is much less common today than it was before 1950.[2] It may be that quinine plays a role in triggering the condition, and this drug is no longer commonly used for malaria prophylaxis. Quinine remains important for treatment of malaria.


The treatment is antimalarial chemotherapy, intravenous fluid and sometimes supportive care such as intensive care and dialysis.

Prominent victims[edit]

  • Prior to his photography career, Henri Cartier-Bresson[3] contracted blackwater fever while hunting in Western Africa. Expecting to die, he sent instructions to his family on his wishes for a funeral. He made a full recovery.
  • Missionary and explorer George Grenfell died after a bad attack of blackwater fever at Basoko on 1 July 1906.
  • Actor Don Adams, best known as Maxwell Smart from the popular sitcom Get Smart and as the title character in Inspector Gadget, contracted blackwater fever after being shot in combat at Guadalcanal during World War II. Adams was evacuated from his United States Marine Corps unit to a hospital in New Zealand where he ultimately made a full recovery.
  • Humanitarian and MMA fighter Justin Wren contracted malaria, which devolved into blackwater fever, while drilling water-wells for Congo Pygmies in 2013. The affliction nearly claimed Wren's life. He was misdiagnosed four times and required airlift to Uganda, where he narrowly recovered from severe symptoms.[4]

Cultural references[edit]


  1. ^ Katongole-Mbidde E, Banura C, Kizito A (1988-03-19). "Blackwater fever caused by Plasmodium vivax infection in the acquired immune deficiency syndrome". Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 296 (6625): 827. doi:10.1136/bmj.296.6625.827. PMC 2545111. PMID 3130932.
  2. ^ Bruneel, F.; B. Gacho; M. Wolff; et al. (2002). "Blackwater fever" (in French). 31 (28). Presse médicale (Paris, France: 1983): 1329–34. PMID 12355996.
  3. ^ "10 things to know about HenriCartier-Bresson | Christie's'". Retrieved 2017-09-16.
  4. ^ "Wren back in MMA to 'Fight for the Forgotten'". 27 August 2015.