Sniffer dogs could detect malaria in people

Police Sniffer-dogs

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.

Good dog Freya, one of the dogs who has been trained to sniff out malaria.

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.

Sniffer dogs could potentially be deployed at ports of entry to identify passengers carrying malaria to prevent the spread of the disease across borders and to ensure people receive timely antimalarial treatment.

Lindsay ended up tackling that question in a project that involved the dirty socks of hundreds of African children and a trio of sniffer dogs in England - and the answer strongly pointed to yes.

Principal investigator Steve Lindsay, a professor in the department of biosciences at Durham University, said this showed a "credible degree of accuracy".

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

The sock samples were sent to the Medical Detection Dogs charity in the United Kingdom, where dogs were trained to sniff out the difference in scent between infected and uninfected children.

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

The project to train dogs to identify people infected with malaria parasites was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation under its Grand Challenges Exploration initiative that seeks novel ideas to address global health and development issues. If mosquitoes bite them, the insects can become parasite carriers and transfer the disease to more humans.

According to the World Health Organization, there were an estimated 216 million cases and 445,000 deaths from malaria worldwide in 2016.

"With this innovative approach, these researchers show that new tools to tackle malaria can come from unexpected places", said ASTHM President Regina Rabinovich, MD.

That makes it tricky to use dogs to scent-detect malaria.

The animals could also prevent the disease spreading between countries, they add. This is the first time we have trained dogs to detect a parasite infection and we are delighted by these early results. "This is a reliable, non-invasive test and is extremely exciting for the future". The study's results were presented at the annual scientific meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in New Orleans on Monday.

Real, independent, investigative journalism is in alarming decline. This means journalists are losing the ability to hold the rich and powerful to account. But in the shorter term, malaria-detection dogs might work at ports of entry in countries that have eliminated the disease and want to keep it out.


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