Breath test is the new way to detect malaria

Tuesday November 14 2017


Residents of Kaloleni, Kilifi County, create awareness about malaria on April 26, 2015. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Scientists have devised a way of detecting malaria in children through a breath test.

According to researchers from Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, the "malaria breathalyser" picks up on a previous breakthrough that found people with the disease have unique chemical compounds in their breath.

They say that an odour it sniffs out in people with malaria is identical to a natural smell that attracts insects that spread the disease.

They believe that 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 people that they bite.

Although the test needs perfecting, it could offer a cheap and easy way to help diagnose malaria, Prof Audrey Odom John and colleagues say.

The findings were presented at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene during the annual meeting this week.

The scientists reported how they have been testing out a simple hand-held prototype breathalyser in Lilongwe, Malawi.


The test can detect six different odours or volatile organic compounds to spot cases of malaria.

The study involved 35 feverish children, some with and some without malaria, to test the breathalyser, with the researchers saying the results were very promising.

The children simply provided a sample by blowing into a balloon-like bag.

It gave an accurate result in 29 of the children, with 83 per cent success rate.

“Much more work is needed; however, so far, so good. We are on the right track,” Prof Odom said.

Simple, rapid blood tests for malaria are already available but have limits.

Testing blood can be expensive and technically challenging in rural settings.

A non-invasive method of detection that does not require blood samples or technical expertise could, therefore, be of great benefit.

“The largest advantage of a breath test is that it would not require a blood sample,” Patricia Walker, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, said.

“This makes it especially attractive for use in screening populations, for example at border crossings, to maintain gains in malaria elimination.”