Medicine

Dogs can be trained to sniff out malaria

Dogs can be trained to sniff out malaria

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. A third dog, a Springer Spaniel named Freya, has since been added to the team.

Scientists working with canine trainers have shown that dogs can be taught to scent malaria in people without signs of the infection, raising hopes for new and rapid non-invasive tests for malaria.

The most viable application of this work, according to the researchers, would see sniffer dogs deployed at airports to stop malaria spreading between countries by infected people who are perhaps not displaying obvious symptoms yet.

"This could also ensure that people, many of whom might be unaware they are infected with the malaria parasite, receive antimalarial treatment for the disease", said Professor Steve Lindsay from the department of biosciences at Durham University.

If that proves out, malaria-sniffing dogs could be used as a first line of defense at ports of entry in countries like Gambia in West Africa, and Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa, both of which have largely shut down the disease.

Research has shown that people infected with malaria have a distinct scent which draws mosquitoes that spread the disease.

Lindsay said the experiment began in The Gambia where several hundred school children, who had been recruited to join the trial, were checked for overall general health, sampled for malaria parasites and fitted with a pair of socks that they were asked to wear overnight.

The animals from Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) in Milton Keynes were able to identify the presence of the parasitic disease spread by mosquitoes in socks worn by African children with remarkable accuracy. For their study, researchers collected 175 sock samples, some of which belonged to 30 children whose blood tested positive for the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.

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The dogs were trained to smell the presence of the malaria parasite in infected children by sniffing their clothes.

"The dogs are picking up the odors so quickly and easily that if you actually had people carrying malaria parasites they'd probably have a really big odor signal".

According to the World Health Organization, there were an estimated 216 million cases and 445,000 deaths from malaria worldwide in 2016. It means that we can tick off malaria from the list of things that dogs can identify with the 220m olfactory receptors in their noses. In the past, similar studies trained dogs to detect cancer and diabetes. I believe that this study indicates that dogs have an excellent ability to detect malaria and if presented within an individual infected with the parasite or a piece of recently worn clothing, their accuracy levels will be extremely high. He said detection dogs would operate best at ports of entry into countries which eliminated malaria or are close to elimination.

'This is a reliable, non-invasive test and is extremely exciting for the future'.

The research was presented yesterday at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Annual Meeting in New Orleans, USA. It costs a lot to produce.

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