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Disease-Detecting Dogs

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Disease-Detecting Dogs

Paola Hernandez Olvera, Reporter

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Dogs have the same five senses that humans do: taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell. However, dogs have more heightened senses than humans. In fact, the percentage of dogs’ brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is 40 times larger than humans’, and it has been estimated that dogs can identify smells anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than humans. Because of their extraordinary sense of smell, dogs are used by law enforcement to detect bombs, drugs and other contrabands hidden in luggage and other places.

As of recently, the roles of dogs in the world have taken a leap towards something greater. Dogs are now being trained to detect malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that could be fatal if not detected and treated promptly. If a person experiences chills, fever and sweating after being bit by a mosquito, it is recommended to see a doctor about it immediately.

New research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows that dogs were able to identify articles of clothing, specifically socks, worn by children infected with malaria parasites, even those of children whose cases were mild or not as far along as others. The researchers presented their findings at the annual American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene meeting.

Since the odor of malaria produces chemicals called aldehydes, mosquitoes are more attracted to people when there are malaria parasites present in the person’s system. Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom and the lead researcher in the study, was prompted to start this investigation after learning about the signature scent that malaria parasites cause in people.

“People carrying the malaria parasite already have a signature scent, and we know if dogs can smell drugs, food and other substances, they should be able to detect this smell on clothing too,” Lindsay said according to CNN.

Lindsay and some of his colleagues visited Gambia, a country in West Africa, for the start of their study. Once in Gambia, they asked children who appeared healthy to wear a pair of new socks for one night. In the morning, all 175 pairs of socks were collected and the children were tested for malaria. Although all the children seemed healthy, approximately 30 of them tested positive for the disease. After the tests were done, the socks were frozen to contain the odor during the flight back to the United Kingdom.

“[After] we took the socks that had captured the scent of the children overnight, we flew them to the UK, where the dogs were trained to smell and differentiate samples that were infected or not,” Lindsay said according to CNN.

Medical Detection Dogs, a nonprofit organization, trained the two dogs for six months and after their training, Sally, a Labrador, and Lexi, a Labrador-Golden Retriever, were able to correctly detect 70 percent of the socks of infected children and 90 percent of the socks of uninfected children. The study shows that dogs can be used as tools for malaria detection, like they have in the diagnosis of some forms of cancer, according to the researchers. However, more research is needed following this study as the researchers state that it is still in it’s early trial stages. AP Biology teacher Dustin Barth, says that in order to deliver more accurate results, there could be better ways to conduct the study.

“In the study they had the kids wear socks, so one way to improve the accuracy, might be to use other pieces of clothing,” Barth said. “Using the socks was very non-invasive, and your feet do sweat, so you have a lot of exchange there. However, does physical activity increase the amount of substances being produced, like aldehydes? They might be able to enhance the experiment with that and see if they get better results.”

The study is still in its early stages and is still in action according to Popular Science, a print and online magazine that focuses on mainstream science. However, the current results hold promise for the future.

“[The study] makes sense and it is a pretty logical approach,” Barth said. “Medicine is always looking for ways to help diagnose things and be more accurate with it. One of the things with malaria is that you can go periods of time without it actually being detected. So if you have a way to diagnose the disease ahead of time, then you could obviously have better treatment methods. Also most of these places where malaria is more prominent are poor countries and a lot of them don’t have the funds to get the blood tests done to see if malaria is actually present. So this is a cheap and non-invasive way to detect malaria. I do think that it’s a great way to try and help treat something, that obviously theres a lot of cases of, and could speed up the process and possibly help save lives.”

Junior Bao Hoang believes that this study will have an effect on the world. Hoang said that the study along with saving lives, put the spotlight on what dogs are capable of.

“I think the phrase ‘dogs are a man’s best friend’ is certainly true,” Hoang said. “Dogs are more than just companions, they help us in so many different ways and some things wouldn’t be possible without them. I am certainly grateful that these amazing creatures can save more lives and it ceases to amaze me of their capabilities. I think this discovery will save us a tremendous amount of money and time in the fight against malaria.”

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