Dogs can be trained to sniff out malaria

Modesto Morganelli
Novembre 1, 2018

After the initial results, a third dog, a Springer Spaniel called Freya, was trained to detect malaria.

The Durham University researchers hope the non-invasive test could be used to quickly diagnose and treat patients. Our four-legged friends have successfully managed to sniff out the scent of malaria, which could mean they hold the key to detecting the disease and preventing its spread.

The research team observed if the dogs would pause at any of the socks, which is what the dogs were trained to do if a sock was worn by someone infected by the disease.

"While our findings are at an early stage, in principle, we have shown that dogs could be trained to detect malaria infected people by their odour with a credible degree of accuracy", Principal Investigator Professor Steve Lindsay, from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

British sniffer dogs have been trained to detect malaria in children in Africa, offering a new weapon against the life-threatening disease.

Studies have already shown that being infected with the malaria parasite changes our aroma to make us more attractive to the mosquitoes that spread the disease.

The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and was a collaboration between Medical Detection Dogs, Durham University, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the University of Dundee (in the UK), the Medical Research Council Gambia Unit and the National Malaria Control Programme, in The Gambia.

Lindsay and his colleagues gave nylon socks to almost 600 children who had been tested for malaria in Gambia, where the disease is endemic, and asked them to wear them overnight.

While there, two dogs - a Labrador-Golden Retriever cross called Lexi and a Labrador named Sally - were trained to distinguish between the scent of children infected with malaria and those without the parasite.

After several weeks of training, the dogs correctly identified socks from infected children 70 percent of the time and correctly identified socks from uninfected children 90 percent of the time.

As for putting malaria detection dogs to work in the field, Lindsay said they could be helpful assistants in a malaria elimination campaign that requires treating anyone in a village or community who is still carrying malaria parasites, including those who are not showing symptoms.

According to the last global report on the disease, cases had increased by five million to a new total of 216 million cases a year.

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

Lindsay also sees the possibility that dogs like Freya could sniff out a host of other infectious diseases.

The World Health Organisation says that since 2000, six countries have been certified as malaria free, with another 12 reporting that no malaria cases have originated within their borders.

"The possible potential to train dogs to detect tropical disease where diagnostics are poor, such as leishmaniasis and trypanosomiasis is huge".

"I think it is quite extraordinary", said Lindsay, the lead scientist on a study being presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Recent studies by other research teams have found that the skin of people infected with malaria emit higher levels of these aldehydes. "This is a reliable, non-invasive test and is extremely exciting for the future".

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In the trial, the results of which will be unveiled today, the socks were placed on a stand and the dog sniffed each one in turn.

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