Smelly feet deployed in fight against malaria

A device that uses the odour of smelly feet to trap mosquitoes is to get a boost in funding in the fight against malaria.

Scientists have known for some time that human odour attracts mosquitoes, but researchers from Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute have found that the smell of human feet can attract four times as many mosquitoes as ordinary human scent.

The anti-malarial foot odour trap will receive a grant of $775,000, co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the non-for-profit organisation, Grand Challenges Canada.

The device works by using a synthetic odour of human feet as bait in a box placed outside homes. It then traps and kills the mosquitoes with insecticide. If it is put 30m outside a home, the trap is estimated to kill between 74 and 95 per cent of mosquitoes that enter it.

The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 250 million new cases of malaria each year. In Africa, malaria accounts for 20 per cent of all childhood deaths.

Dr. Fredos Okumu, a Kenyan researcher at the Institute, said: “malaria has claimed so many lives, including those of people close to me, and my hope is that this innovative device is part of the solution”.

Existing methods of protection such as spray repellents and bed nets protect people indoors, but the smelly feet innovation is a uniquely open-air method of killing the malaria-carrying insects.

The mosquitoes’ attraction to foot odour was discovered when socks worn for at least ten hours were placed inside wooden boxes containing insecticide outside homes in rural Tanzania. The research discovered that mosquitoes, who are drawn to humans by scent and not sight, are attracted to a composition of ammonia, lactic acid, carbon dioxide and other substances released by human skin, sweat and breath.

The Gates Foundation gave the initial research a $100,000 grant in May 2009.Scientists hope that with additional funding, the trap can now be tested and developed to be available at low cost to communities in Africa by 2013. The projected cost for the traps is between $4 and $27 each.

“This project is a bold idea, one that’s creative, innovative and counterintuitive,” said Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada. “This local Tanzanian innovation could contribute significantly to accelerating the elimination of malaria and save lives”.

In countries with high disease rates, it is estimated that malaria can decrease GDP by 1.3 per cent. Canada’s non-for-profit organisation said that the foot odour discovery alone was “not enough”.

“Discoveries also need to be implemented in the real world through business and social innovation” said Joseph Rothman, chair of Challenge Canada’s board of directors.