November 18, 2018

Dogs can be trained to sniff out malaria

01 November 2018, 08:29 | Silvia Roy

Image Springer spaniel Freya has been trained to detect malaria

Springer Spaniel Freya who has been trained to detect malaria

"The possible potential to train dogs to detect tropical disease where diagnostics are huge", said study co-author Claire Guest, the CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, in a statement.

"When you're training a dog to find an odor you have to train them the rules of the game - some odors are "yes" and some are "no". Their noses can sniff out illegal drugs, hidden bombs and bed bugs, and they can also help locate everything from criminals to cancer.

Recent research shows that dogs may be able to sniff out malaria through their acute sense of smell, thereby saving thousands of lives through quick and non-invasive detection, according to a news report.

Of the 175 pairs sent, 30 had been worn by children infected with the parasite.

The socks were collected and sorted according to which children were infected with malaria and which were not.

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Steven Lindsay, a public health entomologist from Durham University, said the dogs had trouble detecting malaria-infected socks from children that didn't have malaria parasites reproducing asexually inside their bodies.

It is hoped the findings could potentially lead to the first rapid and non-invasive test for malaria with odour sensors. Thanks largely to insecticide-coated bed nets, Gambia saw a precipitous drop in the overall prevalence of malaria, from 4 percent to 0.2 percent, between 2011 and 2017.

Malaria is a complex disease that won't be eradicated easily, even with the help of our four-legged friends.

Those carrying the malaria parasite, particularly people who are not showing any symptoms, could enter the country undetected.

Identifying people infected with the malaria parasite, but not presenting symptoms, is critical as they can be treated with antimalarial drugs and the spread of the disease can be prevented.

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"These socks had just been worn for 24 hours, a very short space of time".

Despite this success, however, progress in global malaria control has stalled. They are never accurate 100 percent of the time, so it's unclear how many disease carriers would still clear customs.

Another avenue of research that needs to be explored is whether the smell is consistent across populations, so Lindsay plans to test people from all over Africa to see if the dogs can recognize malaria among their scents, too.

Scientists in the United Kingdom have been developing a new method of malaria diagnosis that's so easy it requires little more than a Springer spaniel and a pair of well-used socks. When Freya detects the scent it gives off, she sits down next to it to receive a reward. The pooches-a Labrador retriever and a Labrador mixed breed-would sniff each sample and freeze if they detected malaria, or move on if not. A better sample would have been 100 malaria-positive socks and 300 negative socks, she says. To get the dogs familiar with smelling people, the handlers would work with mannequins that were wearing clothes from infected individuals.

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.

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