Those gym socks you’ve been meaning to wash for the past week may now have a medical use, as smelly feet have become the next weapon used in the fight against malaria. Foot odor may now be more than just something that bothers your wife when you get home from work, and may be the key to stopping the disease that kills more than 600,000 people each year.
A laboratory study made an interesting find, that mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite were more likely to be attracted to human odor. Results of the study were published last month in the journal PLOS online. The fight against malaria has taken many angles during its lifetime, with drugs, insecticides, and bed nets all coming short of preventing breakouts.
The study determined that mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite, estimated to be as much as one percent of the mosquito population, are three times more likely to be drawn to human odors compared to their non parasite carrying cohorts. Attraction to human odor has long been suspected, but this test showed that it could be a powerful factor in controlling the disease.
In an interview about the results, Dr. James Logan who lead the research for the study which was conducted at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, highlighted his somewhat humorous findings “Smelly feet have a use after all,” adding that “every time we identify a new part of how the malaria mosquito interacts with us, we’re one step closer to controlling it better.”
Potential uses for these findings include creating traps with human odors, perhaps sweaty socks, inside in an attempt to trap only mosquitoes that carry the deadly parasite.
Benefits of an odor based trap are extensive. Unlike using insecticides, it would be extremely difficult for mosquitoes to build up an immunity to a smell based trap. If human odor based traps were used to target only parasite carrying mosquitoes, then the species wouldn’t have the same survival based need to adapt an immunity to the trap, like they often do with insecticides.
The only way an immunity could be developed to an odor based trapping system would be for mosquitoes to become less attracted to human odor, choosing rather to feed on something else. Not many people would complain if mosquitoes became less interested in feeding on us.
Supporting this assertion was Andrew Read, professor of biology and entomology at the University of Pennsylvania, he said that
“The only way mosquitoes could develop resistance is if they were less attracted to human odors. And if they did that and started feeding on something else, like cows, that would be fine.”
Read expanded upon the potential uses for such a technique, branching it out to include other disease carrying insects.
Logan knows that his work isn’t done yet, and that to avoid needing to use smelly gym socks to actually make the traps, scientists and researchers would have to further study the behaviors in order to isolate the chemicals in foot odor that are particularly attractive to the bugs.
This will be no walk in the park, as Logan points out mosquitoes have a highly developed sense of smell. “Mosquitoes aren’t attracted to cheese because they’ve evolved to know the difference. You have to get the mixture, ratios and concentrations of those chemicals exactly right otherwise the mosquito won’t think it’s a human.”
Malaria kills an estimated 600,000 people annually, most of which are children from Africa. The high death totals make this a disease high on the priority list in terms of finding a prevention or cure.
Smelly feet may be an unlikely hero in the fight against malaria, but if it can help prevent thousands of deaths each year, it could wind up a major hero for humanity. Next time your wife complains about your smelly feet, explain that you’re simply helping mankind fight off the mosquito born disease.
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Senior Sports Editor
The Guardian Express
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