A Smelly Solution

New research shows that smelly socks may just hold the key to fighting malaria

Jul 13, 2011 | By Cameron Keady
USDA/AP

The scent of stinky, old socks leaves most people holding their noses with disgust. But scientists have discovered it is just the opposite for a certain pesky pest. Researchers have found that the odor of old socks is actually extremely attractive to mosquitoes. Dr. Fredros Okumu, head of the research project at Tanzania's Ifakara Health Institute, plans to use this new information to develop a device that will attract and trap mosquitoes. He hopes this unusual method will help prevent and fight malaria.

 

A Big Problem

Malaria is a disease that is spread by infected mosquitoes. Symptoms of malaria can include chills, fever and vomiting. The disease can spread easily and quickly. One mosquito carrying malaria can infect numerous people. While malaria can exist in moderate climates, it is far more severe in tropic and sub-tropic climates like Africa. In parts of Africa, malaria can infect an entire population. Many of these populations live in rural areas with limited access to health and medical care.

Malaria can be prevented and treated. But many African nations don't have the funds to fight it. While the global infection rate of malaria is continuing to drop, there are still over 220 million cases of malaria each year. Nearly 800,000 of these cases result in death, the majority of them being children in Africa. Okumu hopes this simple innovation can be used to develop a device that is affordable and accessible to the people who need them most.

 

Biting Back

Many methods have already been developed to squash mosquitoes. Bed nets treated with insecticide and indoor spraying have reduced the number of fatal malaria cases. But no such developments have been made to battle these bugs outdoors. The smelly mosquito trap may be the answer. "The global goal of eradication of malaria will not be possible without new technologies," said Okumu, who has been working on this project for two years.

Okumu mixed eight chemical compounds to create the perfect scent to lure the mosquitoes into the trap. Then he experimented with poisons until he found one that could kill up to 95 percent of mosquitoes. Tests showed that traps scented with the odor of human feet attracted four times as many mosquitoes as a human volunteer, Okumu said.

Okumu has been awarded a $775,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada to fund his research to create the outdoor traps. He's working to make traps that would cost anywhere from $4 to $27. "It's bold, it's innovative and it has the potential for big impact," said Dr. Peter A. Singer, the head of Grand Challenges Canada, who co-funded Okumu's research. "Who would have thought that a lifesaving technology was lurking in your laundry basket?"