SOCK sniffing pooches are being trained to spot signs of maleria and help lead the fight against the deadly disease.
Scientists in the UK and The Gambia have trained dogs to recognise tell-tale aromas using clothes from people infected with the disease.
It is hoped the findings could potentially lead to the first rapid and non-invasive test for malaria with odour sensors.
Several hundred children in the Gambia took part in the study and, after being checked for general health and sampled for malaria parasites, were given a pair of socks to wear overnight.
The socks were collected and sorted according to which children were infected with malaria and which were not. Only socks from children who were uninfected or those whose blood was shown to contain malaria parasites but had no fever were chosen for the trial.
The socks were then brought to the Medical Detection Dogs charity in Milton Keynes, where Lexi, a Labrador-Golden Retriever cross and Sally, a Labrador, were trained to distinguish between the scent of children infected with malaria parasites and those uninfected.
Sally and Lexie were able to correctly sniff out the socks worn by children with malaria parasites 70 per cent of the time and those without 90 per cent of the time.
Principal Investigator Professor Steve Lindsay, in the Department of Biosciences, Durham University, 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 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.
‘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 antimalarial drug treatment for the disease.’
The researchers still need to improve the dogs’ accuracy and test them on people rather than socks, as well as investigate whether the animals can sniff out different species of malaria.
The aim is to one day use specially trained dogs at airports and ports to curb the spread of the disease.
Study co-author Dr Claire Guest, Chief Executive Officer of Medical Detection Dogs, said: ‘This is the first time we have trained dogs to detect a parasite infection and we are delighted by these early results.
‘I believe that this study indicates that dogs have an excellent ability to detect malaria and if presented with an individual infected with the parasite or a piece of recently worn clothing, their accuracy levels will be extremely high.
‘This is a reliable, non-invasive test and is extremely exciting for the future.’