Dogs sense malaria in new trial by smelling socks

Lexie and Sally the two dogs who took part in the malaria study

Another avenue of research that needs to be explored is whether the smell is consistent across populations, so Lindsay plans to test people from all over Africa to see if the dogs can recognize malaria among their scents, too.

The researchers have trained three dogs - a Labrador-Golden Retriever cross, a Labrador, and a Springer Spaniel - to detect malaria in samples of socks worn by infected children from west Africa. The number barely budged from the year before, when 446,000 people succumbed to the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, which spreads through infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. He said detection dogs would operate best at ports of entry into countries which eliminated malaria or are close to elimination.

Despite progress, according to the World Health Organization, there were about 216 million malaria incidents in 2016, five million more than in 2015, with deaths reaching 445,000.

"Our results show that sniffer dogs could be a serious way of making a diagnosis of people who don't show any symptoms, but are still infectious, quicker and easier", Logan said.

Blood tests revealed 30 of the children had malaria, while the remaining 145 were not infected.

Scientists have only recently understood patients with malaria parasites have a unique odour or "chemical footprint", and researchers made a decision to test whether dogs' highly-sensitive noses could detect this.

The dogs were also able to correctly identify 90 per cent of the samples without malaria parasites.

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"And it's these odor that are probably coming out that mosquitoes can detect", said Professor Steve Lindsay, Principle Investigator of the study from Durham University. By flagging suspected travelers, these sniffer dogs could prevent malaria from spreading between countries and help infected people get earlier treatment. Researchers presented their preliminary findings today at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Annual Meeting.

Sniffer dogs could provide a non-invasive, portable and rapid test for identifying malaria carriers and would be particularly useful in settings where there are few individuals with malaria parasites.

Study co-author Dr Claire Guest, Chief Executive Officer of Medical Detection Dogs, said it has had "positive results training dogs to detect diseases including cancer and diabetes sugar changes by odour". Recent studies by other research teams have found that the skin of people infected with malaria emit higher levels of these aldehydes.

Scientists in the United Kingdom have been developing a new method of malaria diagnosis that's so easy it requires little more than a Springer spaniel and a pair of well-used socks.

The researchers plan to improve the skills of the animals, teaching them to find the parasites causing the disease in the early stages. Logan is head of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's department of disease control.

The goal, according to Lindsay, is to further testing in countries where there might be different types of malaria parasites. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless.

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