Australian scientists are developing a breath test for malaria, an innovation that could offer a cost effective alternative to blood tests.
This follows a discovery last year that distinctive chemicals can be detected in the breath of malaria-infected patients, making it quicker and easier to diagnose the disease.
A breath test for malaria
Diagnosing malaria may soon be as easy taking a simple breath test, according to researchers.
“We really envision this working just like a breathalyser test when you get pulled over for drunk driving. This would be a durable device that would be appropriate for the resource limited field setting that it would be used in and would not require a trained observer or trained person to use the device,” said Dr. Audrey Odom, an assistant professor of pediatrics and molecular biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
We are giving almost 300 million doses of malaria treatment every year and we don’t even know if we are giving them to the right people.
The researchers have found out that the malaria parasite has a distinct smell, thanks to chemical compounds called terpenes.
“Those type of compounds when they are in the blood can actually get into the lungs and out in the gas that you exhale. So we think the breath for children that have malaria will actually have have the parasite compounds that we can detect,” she explained.
Scientists were able to detect and diagnose malaria with 100 per cent accuracy in the exhaled breath of children, during a pilot study of the breathlyzer in Malawi.
Malaria killed an estimated 438,000 people in 2015, most of those being children under the age of five and the majority of cases in Sub Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“We are giving almost 300 million doses of malaria treatment every year and we don’t even know if we are giving them to the right people. That is a very expensive thing to be doing and it is not the right thing to be doing. We want to judiciously use antimicrobial and antimalarials only on the people that really need them. So I think a low cost diagnostic test that you could disseminate more widely would allow to preserve our antimalarials only for the children who need them which would let them work longer,” she said.
Breath tests have been around for a while. It is now about 34 years since random breath testing for alcohol was introduced in New South Wales. Recently, a study in the Journal of Breath even showed that conditions including Type 1 Diabetes, colorectal cancer and lung cancer could potentially be detected by breath testing.