Severe malaria is a medical emergency. It is a major cause of preventable childhood death in tropical countries. Severe malaria justifies considerable global investment in malaria control and elimination yet, increasingly, international agencies, funders and policy makers are unfamiliar with it, and so it is overlooked. In sub-Saharan Africa, severe malaria is overdiagnosed in clinical practice. Approximately one third of children diagnosed with severe malaria have another condition, usually sepsis, as the cause of their severe illness. But these children have a high mortality, contributing substantially to the number of deaths attributed to ‘severe malaria’. Simple well-established tests, such as examination of the thin blood smear and the full blood count, improve the specificity of diagnosis and provide prognostic information in severe malaria. They should be performed more widely. Early administration of artesunate and broad-spectrum antibiotics to all children with suspected severe malaria would reduce global malaria mortality.