Malaria Changes How You Smell. That Could Be Extremely Useful to Doctors.
The smell of a person with malaria might just be the key to diagnosing it.
The parasite that causes malaria makes an infected person smell more attractive to mosquitoes, and new research indicates that this may actually make it easier for scientists to detect the disease.
The findings published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences characterizes the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by people infected with Plasmodium — the parasite responsible for malaria.
VOCs often come across as smells, which means that the study essentially determined how malaria smells to mosquitoes, Scientific American reported.
Mosquitoes are attracted to the smell of Plasmodium — they flock to people who are sick, and then spread the virus to others.
Because of this, the study’s researchers suggest developing odor-based technology that would be able to detect malaria more accurately than current methods.
A team of scientists tested the hypothesis on 400 children in 41 schools in areas at risk of malaria in western Kenya. The scientists used a portable instrument that pulls air from the top of the skin and collects VOCs in a filter for laboratory analysis.
They also took blood samples to test using the established methods of examination under a microscope and screening for antigens with a rapid diagnostic test, according to Scientific American. Those methods cannot generally diagnose cases in which people infected with Plasmodium are partially immune or showing no symptoms. However, they still carry the smell of malaria with them, so mosquitoes are still attracted to them, which means they still spread the disease.
This may account for over 99% of onward transmission by mosquitoes, according to the new research.
Meanwhile, the new odor-testing method “identified asymptomatic infections with 100% sensitivity,” the study said.
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This means there is great potential for noninvasive methods to detect malaria infections in the field.
Early diagnosis and treatment reduces the spread of malaria and helps prevent deaths. Almost half of the world’s population was at risk of contracting this disease in 2016. As such, there were 445,000 malaria deaths in 2016 alone, according to the World Health Organization.
If further research finds the same results as the findings published this week, it could mean big things for the fight against malaria.
But Andrew Read, the study’s co-author and an evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University, did emphasize that further testing is still needed.
"The question is how variable this is around the world," he told Scientific American. "Is it the same profile for people with different diets, different lifestyles? We don’t know if we need to fine-tune the profile for different countries."
Still, mosquitoes around the world do all seem to be attracted to malaria, according to Read.
Many organizations are pushing for increased funding and research commitments to put an end to this devastating disease, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Malaria rates are decreasing, but continued support and investments are needed to truly eradicate this disease. Global Citizen campaigns on global health, knowing that ensuring good health for all is essential in the fight to end extreme poverty by 2030. You can take action here.