Dogs could detect malaria by sniffing socks of infected people

Henrietta Strickland
November 1, 2018

Public health entomologist Steve Lindsay at Durham University who led the project said this technique may help ensure that people who are unaware that they are infected with the malaria parasite receive timely treatment.

Researchers from Medical Research Council Unit at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine used nylon socks to collect foot odour samples from apparently healthy Gambian children, aged five to 14, while also screening them for the malaria parasite with a finger-prick blood test.

Almost half of the world's population is at risk of malaria, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). They reached their findings by training a number of dogs in the United Kingdom to identify the presence of malaria.

Thirty of the participants tested as malaria positive using finger prick blood tests, and 145 were uninfected. The next day, the socks were collected. Only socks from children with malaria who did not have fever were selected, as were the socks from the children who were uninfected.

Whatever it is, these trained pups are surprisingly effective at sniffing it out.

Experiments with two dogs showed that animals were able to correctly smell 70% of cases of malaria and 90% of those without the parasite.

Researchers in Britain and The Gambia say they have the first evidence that dogs can sniff out malaria, a skill that they say could lead to much quicker diagnosis of the killer disease. However, in the future this work needs to be expanded with more samples tested from different parts of Africa. As malaria infections progress, the parasite goes through several stages of development.

"It might be that the odors produced by the parasites change if you are at the sexual stage or asexual stage", Lindsay told The Guardian. But the dogs were not trained to detect their odor.

Lindsay ended up tackling that question in a project that involved the dirty socks of hundreds of African children and a trio of sniffer dogs in England - and the answer strongly pointed to yes.

However, Lindsay and his colleagues said their work was only created to be a "proof of concept study" to show that malaria diagnosis by dogs is possible.

Those carrying the malaria parasite, particularly people who are not showing any symptoms, could enter the country undetected.

'I believe that this study indicates that dogs have an excellent ability to detect malaria and if presented with an individual infected with the parasite or a piece of recently worn clothing, their accuracy levels will be extremely high.

Figures show there were around 216 million cases of malaria - spread by parasites through mosquito bites - in 2016 alone.

According to the World Health Organization, since 2000 six at-risk countries have been certified malaria free.

Dogs, equipped with their hyper-sensitive snoot, can detect the presence of the molecular signature of malaria.

James Logan, a co-author on the study and the head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. It's especially prevalent in Africa, but it's not limited to the continent.

Dogs could be trained to sniff out malaria in people according to new research aimed at preventing the spread of the deadly disease - and Milton Keynes-based Medical Detection Dogs are leading the way. "Funding to support these innovations is critical to achieving the global goal of eliminating-and eventually eradicating-malaria from its remaining strongholds".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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