8 November 2017
By Ugonnabo Ngwu
In a bid to guarantee effective treatment of malaria, scientists from Washington University in St Louis, have moved to simplify the diagnosis of malaria, which affects 3.3 billion people, or half of the world’s population, in 106 countries and territories.
The researchers affirmed that people with malaria can now give off a distinctive “breath-print” that could be used as a test for the disease.
The lead researcher, Prof Audrey John said that although the test needs perfecting, it could be a cheaper and less intrusive way of diagnosing the disease rapidly.
This new finding was presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, being held in Baltimore in the United States from November 5 to 9.
The conference also heard that the researchers had already tried out a crude prototype breathalyser in Africa.
The current practice is that every malaria diagnosis begins with blood or urine. In the gold standard test, doctors spread a drop on a glass slide, stain the sample, and inspect it beneath a microscope. If the parasite is present, it will show up purple against a pink backdrop of blood cells.
While these “blood smears” are relatively straightforward to perform, its implementation does not come easy in rural, resource-starved parts of the world.
John stated that the test was reasonably good at detecting cases in children, but it needed to be developed to adapt as a routine device.
The researchers tried it on breath samples from 35 feverish children in Malawi, some with and some without malaria.
It gave an accurate result in 29 of the children, meaning that it had a success rate of 83 per cent. But this is quite low for the test to be adopted for testing malaria globally.
One of the odours it sniffs out is identical to a natural smell that attracts insects that spread malaria, a report on the BBC stated.
Pine trees and conifers emit these terpenes to summon mosquitoes and other pollinating insects, said the American researchers.
Terpenes are a large and diverse class of organic compounds, produced by a variety of plants, particularly conifers, and by some insects such as termites or swallowtail butterflies, which emit terpenes from their osmeteria.
They believe people with malaria who have this odour in their breath may also attract mosquitoes and infect more of the biting insects, which can then spread the disease to other people that they bite.
Meanwhile, John and his team of researchers have said they would work to increase the efficacy of breathalyser so that it can become a routine device.
The World Health Organisation, WHO, estimates that 216 million cases of malaria occurred in 2010, 81 per cent in the African region.
Malaria is also a major public health problem in Nigeria where it accounts for more cases and deaths than any other country in the world. Malaria is a risk for 97 per cent of Nigeria’s population. The remaining three per cent of the population live in the malaria free highlands.
There are an estimated 100 million malaria cases with over 300,000 deaths per year in Nigeria. In addition, malaria accounts for 60 per cent of outpatient visits and 30 per cent of hospitalisations among children under five years of age in Nigeria.