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  • Sniffer dogs were able to detect whether a child had malaria in seven out of ten cases, according to current research.
  • There were about 216 million cases of malaria in 2016, with 445,000 malaria deaths. About 90% of these incidents and deaths were on the African continent.
  • Sniffer dogs could offer a non-invasive, rapid test to identify those infected with the malaria parasite, the researchers say – but more research is needed.

New research has found that dogs were able to sniff out malaria with 70% accuracy, by smelling infected children’s socks. Nine out of ten times they were able to correctly diagnose whether the child was malaria-free, according to research presented at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’s annual meeting in New Orleans, in the United States, this week.
Malaria, caused by a parasite transmitted to humans by the Anopheles mosquito, is one of the world’s major killers. According to the World Health Organisation’s World Malaria Report, in 2016 there were 216 million cases of malaria, with 445,000 deaths. The African region is particularly at the mercy of this parasite, with 90% of all cases and 91% of malaria deaths. Children under five are worst hit by the disease, with more than two-thirds of all malaria deaths occurring in this age group, the WHO says.
Researchers from the United Kingdom and The Gambia collected nylon socks worn by apparently healthy five- to 14-year-old children in the West African country. The children also gave a blood sample so researchers could test for malaria. In total, researchers sent 175 sock samples to the United Kingdom, to be given the canine treatment. Of these 175, 30 were from children identified as malaria-positive through the study.
In the United Kingdom, charity Medical Detection Dogs had trained two dogs – Lexi, a Labrador-Golden Retriever cross, and Sally, a Labrador – to differentiate between the smell of socks from children with malaria and those without.

“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,” said principal investigator Steve Lindsay, a bioscientist at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom.

“This would provide a non-invasive way of screening for the disease at ports of entry in a similar way to how sniffer dogs are routinely used to detect fruit and vegetables or drugs at airports.”

 That could ensure that people, who may be unaware that they have malaria, to receive treatment, he said.

However, researchers cautioned that more research was needed before dogs could be used routinely at ports, to determine if they could sniff out malaria directly (rather than via socks) and if they could sniff it out in people from different parts of the world.

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