Dogs have been trained to identify if someone is infected with malaria simply by sniffing their socks, according to research released Monday.
These animals have already been trained in the use of smell to diagnose certain forms of cancer and diabetes, and now British scientists have helped train two dogs to detect malaria parasites, aided by the British medical organization Detection Dogs.
“People with the malaria parasite already have a characteristic odor, and we know that if dogs can smell drugs, food and other substances, they should also be able to detect that odor on clothing,” he said. Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist in the Department of Biosciences at Durham University and lead researcher on the study.
Lindsay’s team tested the idea in The Gambia, where they collected socks donated to 600 schoolchildren aged 5-13 who had or had not had malaria. The socks were used to train dogs in the UK for four months.
“We took the socks that had caught the kids’ scent overnight and flew them to the UK, where the dogs were trained to smell and differentiate infected samples or not,” Lindsay said.
By feeling the socks, Lexi and Sally dogs were able to accurately detect 70% of infected children and 90% of uninfected children.
The study shows that dogs can be used as tools for the detection of malaria, as they have done for the diagnosis of certain forms of cancer, according to the researchers.
Dogs have millions of sensors in the nose that make them more sensitive to odors than humans.
But further research is needed after this pilot study, and the authors warn that the method is still in its early stages. The technique should be tested on samples from other countries before the animals can be used in the field, they revealed.
Other studies should also be conducted, particularly in African countries, to see if dogs can “directly” detect malaria in infected people, according to the team.
The detection rates could have been higher, up to 78%, if children with malaria had the same type of parasites, they added.
An estimated 216 million cases of malaria in the world in 2016, including 445,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The disease can be treated, but there is no preventive vaccine.