Malaria sniffed out by dogs in sock-smelling trial

Alicia Farmer
November 1, 2018

Dogs have been trained to sniff out certain kinds of cancer and sugar changes in diabetes patients, but this is the first time they've been trained to detect a parasite infection.

British sniffer dogs have been trained to detect malaria in children in Africa, offering a new weapon against the life-threatening disease.

The disease is caused by parasites transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes, but it can be prevented and cured with antimalarial drugs.

Cases of malaria are on the rise, globally.

The disease infected around 216 million people worldwide in 2016 and killed 445,000 of them.

Although the research is in its early stages, the scientists hope trained sniffer dogs could help to stop malaria spreading between countries and lead to infected people being spotted earlier and treated quickly.

In total 175 sock samples were tested including those of all 30 malaria-positive children identified by the study and 145 uninfected children. The dogs could also detect which samples did not contain malaria with 90 percent accuracy.

Researchers believe the odor given off by the malaria parasite is attracting the mosquitoes that spread the disease.

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Results of this preliminary investigation, the details of which were disclosed at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in New Orleans, suggests dogs can, in fact, sniff out the disease in infected individuals. At the very least, this latest research provides an important proof-of-principle showing that dogs might be useful for sniffing out malaria in some settings.

The smelly footwear arrived at the Medical Detection Dogs charity in Milton Keynes.

Since the initial study Freya, a Springer Spaniel, has also been trained to detect malaria.

Alternatively, health workers can use any number of "rapid diagnostic tests", which involve dropping a pinprick of blood on a small device.

The aim is to one day use specially trained dogs at airports to curb the spread of the disease and to find symptomless carriers to help eradication efforts. Recent studies by other research teams have found that the skin of people infected with malaria emit higher levels of these aldehydes. New tools are urgently needed because, after more than a decade of dramatic reductions in malaria infections and deaths, over the last two years the world has experienced a slight increase in both. However, in the future this work needs to be expanded with more samples tested from different parts of Africa.

"So for countries that have eliminated, it's a really interesting potential new way they could protect their borders and keep their countries malaria free". To diagnose malaria, doctors can draw blood and use a microscope to identify the parasites, but this requires training and "things that seem straightforward but aren't", like clean glass slides, a functioning microscope and reliable electricity, says Heidi Hopkins, an associate professor in malaria and diagnostics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless.

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