Scientists in Britain have been running experiments to train the animals to detect the disease, which kills around 430,000 people a year – most of them children in sub-Saharan Africa.
Two-year-old springer spaniel Freya has been working with her trainer to hunt malaria and can detect the scent of the parasite on socks worn by Gambian children infected with the disease.
“These socks had just been worn for 24 hours, a very short space of time. But what we found was that dogs are able to detect a difference in the socks that have been worn by children who are infected with the malaria parasite and children who are malaria-free.”
It’s still early days for the research. But scientists believe dogs could one day be trained to detect malaria in people, picking out an infected person from a crowd of otherwise healthy individuals.
“I think the best use of these dogs is at ports of entry – airports, seaports or landports – to identify people coming in carrying malaria parasites. The important point here is that these aren’t people sick with malaria, they’re simply carrying the malaria parasites in their blood.”
Researchers said the experiment with dogs is a key development in the fight against the disease.
Although malaria mortality rates are down globally, the World Health Organization says progress against the disease is in danger of stalling.
With current anti-malarial drugs failing in many parts of the world as people develop resistance to them.