A breath test for malaria

Researchers in the United States are developing a breath test for malaria, an innovation that could offer a cost effective alternative to blood tests.

LIONGWE, MALAWI (Reuters) - There's a new breath test for malaria, and its developers say it will offer a cost effective alternative to blood sampling.

"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 Audrey Odom, Assistant Professor of Paediatrics and Molecular Biology.

It turns out that the malaria parasite has a distinct smell, thanks to chemical compounds called terpenes.

"Those types of compounds when they are in the blood can actually get into the lungs and out in the gas that you exhale," said Ms Odom.

In a pilot study in Malawi, scientists were able to detect and diagnose malaria with 100 per cent accuracy in the exhaled breath of children.

Malaria kills an estimated half a million people every year, most of those children under the age of 5 in Sub Saharan Africa.

"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," said Ms Odom.

A second field trial is scheduled for next fall in Malawi.