A team of doctors in England and Gambia have conducted experiments to see if dogs are able to sniff out malaria in potentially infected patients.
The experiment might make you feel sick, but it could be very interesting if it were confirmed. English and Gambian researchers have used dirty socks to see if certain dogs are capable of detecting malaria.
In the past, studies have shown that malaria changes the production of certain hormones to make us more attractive and appealing to mosquitos, which therefore helps to spread the disease. And, although our noses are incapable of sensing the difference, it seems that a dog’s sense of smell could actually be able to detect it.
175 pairs of socks from Gambia
To look into this theory, researchers gathered socks worn by children during the night in Gambia. Of the 175 pairs that were collected and sent to England, 30 belonged to children infected with malaria as revealed by blood tests. And the socks weren’t sent just anywhere, but to the non-profit organisation Medical Detection Dogs in Milton Keynes.
In this centre, dogs have been trained to detect certain types of cancer but also to recognise early signs of Parkinson’s disease. As part of the new study that was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene held in New Orleans, some dogs have also been trained to recognise the specific odours released by malaria before the first symptoms even begin to appear.
The results of this first experiment showed that the dogs managed to identify 70% of the pairs of socks that were owned by children infected by malaria. They also correctly recognised 90% of the socks that were worn by children that weren’t suffering from the disease. Professor Steven Lindsay from Durham University is leading this research.
‘I think it’s quite extraordinary,’ says the professor. He continued by saying that he would like to see malaria-detection dogs help patrol in airports and seaports of countries that have recently become malaria-free and help to completely eliminate malaria in countries where it is still an issue.
The specialist however noted that at the moment, this was only a proof of concept. He would definitely like to see dogs better trained to improve their success rates and have more tests like this carried out in more realistic settings. So, the socks used in this experiment had to be frozen while they were transported which could have possibly changed the way they smelled when the dogs first came into contact with them.
A quick and inexpensive way to detect malaria
Researchers also hope to be able to train dogs to recognise the smell of malaria in humans rather than just from their clothes. The aim is that the canines will be able to identify this smell in more environments in order to reduce the spread of the disease and find asymptomatic patients faster in order to treat them quicker.
Malaria is one of the largest scourges on hot countries, with 216 million people infected throughout the world and which is responsible for more than 400,000 deaths every year. This disease is transmitted by infected female mosquitos that carry the parasites in their saliva. Sniffer dogs could also actually be used to detect malaria quicker than other methods and for a much lower cost.