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News & Views May 2019 Issue

Early Detection and Treatment of Malaria Is Going to the Dogs

More than 400,000 people die each year from malaria, with some 2,000 diagnoses annually in the U.S. And the situation is about to get worse. A mosquito-born disease, malaria is once again on the uptick. The reason, in part, is that tests designed to detect malaria early are no longer working as well because mutant malaria parasites are not producing the specific protein those tests were designed to detect. But dogs might be able to do what the tests cannot.

So-called sniffer dogs have been able to smell malaria on socks worn only briefly by hundreds of children in West Africa, where the disease is endemic. In a research trial, they were able to distinguish between infected and uninfected children at least 70 percent of the time, and they could detect the disease in cases where there were not yet telltale symptoms, leading to the potential for earlier treatment.

The investigators overseeing the project, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and a charity called Medical Detection Dogs, say the dogs were correctly identifying malaria-infected children with lower levels of parasites than what is required to meet clinical standards for rapid diagnostic tests set by the World Health Organization.

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