A new study conducted in the UK has demonstrated that trained sniffer dogs could non-invasively and rapidly detect malaria in people faster than diagnostic tests that are currently in use.

The latest demonstration could potentially lead to the first rapid and non-invasive test for malaria.

The research was conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Durham University, Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) and the University of Dundee.

“We have shown that dogs could be trained to detect malaria-infected people by their odour with a credible degree of accuracy.”

Other partners were the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia (MRCG) at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and The Gambia National Malaria Control Programme.

The study involved used nylon socks collected from seemingly healthy children aged 5-14 years in The Gambia, West Africa. The children were also screened using a finger-prick test to check the presence of malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in their blood.

These socks were shipped to the UK-based charity Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) to be examined by sniffer dogs that were trained to differentiate between the scent of children with malaria infection and those who were not infected.

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Out of the total 175 sock samples, 30 were from malaria-positive children and 145 from uninfected. When tested, trained dogs correctly sniffed out 70% of the malaria-infected samples and 90% of those without malaria parasites.

BBC quoted LSHTM researcher Chelci Squires as saying that this unique approach is much faster than current rapid diagnostic tests that can take up to 20 minutes.

Durham University biosciences professor Steve Lindsay said: “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.

“This could help prevent the spread of malaria to countries that have been declared malaria-free and also ensure that people, many of whom might be unaware that they are infected with the malaria parasite, receive anti-malarial drug treatment for the disease.”

The researchers noted that the findings meet the criteria for the procurement of rapid diagnostic tests. They also hope to develop artificial odour sensors in the future.