Malaria Detection Dogs

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by Plasmodium parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female mosquitoes. In 2016, nearly half the world’s population was at risk of malaria.

Malaria is both preventable and curable. Increased efforts are dramatically reducing the malaria burden in many places, however it remains a significant world-wide public health problem. Despite huge attention and resources devoted to eradicating malaria the World Health Organisation estimates there were 212 million cases of malaria in 2015.

It is known that malaria mosquitoes prefer feeding on patients carrying malaria parasites. Further evidence suggests that this is an odour-mediated phenomenon: people infected with malaria smell more attractive to mosquitoes than those that are not infected. We have shown that dogs can detect this odour.

Our work

Bill Gates, whose Foundation helps fund our work in this area, said in April 2018 of the fight against malaria that “British R&D is still giving us the tools we need to win”.

Working with collaborators from Durham University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Medical Research Council Unit in The Gambia, socks worn for 24 hours by 400 school children have been collected from four separate locations. Blood tests and PCR tests then determined which of the asymptomatic children were carrying the malaria parasite. On arrival at our research centre the socks were used to successfully train four dogs to distinguish those worn by the children carrying the parasite from those that were malaria free (see above for an image of how they were presented to the dogs).

We are delighted to announce that the results of the first double blind testing in this project have recently been calculated and on average the dogs were performing with 73% reliability. This is very encouraging for such an early stage in the project.

The future

If dogs can be used to readily identify malaria-infected individuals they could be used as ‘detection dogs’ at ports of entry which is routine for drugs and biological materials such as food, screening travellers entering areas that are malaria free but susceptible to re-invasion.

They could also be used for active case detection among communities when malaria is approaching zero, and only a few individuals in several thousand carry parasites and act as reservoirs of infection.

Using dogs for the detection of parasites has the advantage that it is non-invasive (not requiring blood samples), portable and does not require a laboratory.

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Courtesy of BBC South Today

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