Published: Thu, November 01, 2018
Health Care | By Cedric Leonard

Dogs Detect Malaria by Sniffing Worn Socks

Dogs Detect Malaria by Sniffing Worn Socks

Health researchers are now tapping doggos to help detect major diseases, including malaria, in people who may or may not be infected.

Study co-author and MDD chief executive, Dr Claire Guest, said its dogs have also been able to detect cancer and diabetes sugar changes. Since 2000, there has been a 60 per cent plunge in malarial death rates, and yet nearly half of the world's population is still at risk, shows a 2015 World Health Organization report. Using a standard finger-prick test, the researchers were able to determine which of these children had the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in their blood. Current diagnostic methods are also time-consuming because they require blood samples to be taken and sent off to a laboratory for testing.

It is hoped the findings could potentially lead to the first rapid and non-invasive test for malaria with odour sensors.

The socks were sent to the Medical Detection Dogs, a charity in the United Kingdom where trainers taught a Labrador-Golden Retriever cross called Lexi and a Labrador called Sally to distinguish between the scents of infected and uninfected children.

It was carried out by Durham University, the charity Medical Detection Dogs, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the University of Dundee (all UK), the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the National Malaria Control Programme, The Gambia.

As many dog owners know, their pets love carrying round the worn and smelly sock of their owners. In a small, proof-of-concept study, two trained dogs were able to distinguish between socks worn by children who had malaria and socks from the feet of those who did not. James Logan from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine all worked on the project.

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But there are still an estimated 216 million cases of malaria in 2016, an increase of five million cases over the previous year and it kills 445,000.

A researcher told the media that patients infected with the malaria parasite produce specific odours in their breath that disappear after treatment of the parasite. The downside is that you can't force every worldwide traveler to submit to a blood test. Alternately, articles of clothing would have to be removed and sniffed by the dogs, which is also not ideal. A device could be created to detect the same compounds that the dogs and mosquitoes smell-but to do that, more research on the specific molecules is needed. Adding other smells to the suite of smells for the dog could improve its accuracy, she said.

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.

Durham University research suggests that dogs can sense if someone has malaria by smelling their socks.

A final complicating factor is that there is more than one type of malaria. But these puppers-and their human trainers-will be working with all their canine might, in the lab and in the field, to turn this underdog story into a success.

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