Animals as medical diagnosticians

Our veterinary institutions might want to think about the feasibility of this idea by choosing, training and deploying animals

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting news item which said that dogs can identify a person infected with the malarial parasite, and that they use their superb sense of smell to do so. A group called “Medical Detection Dogs,” a nonprofit foundation in the UK reported this finding in a recent scientific meeting in the US, and Donald G McNeil, Jr has written an excellent column about this in the New York Times (Nov 5, 2018, accessible on the web). Medical Detection Dogs had already done considerable work on the ability of dogs in detecting cancers of various kinds in humans, by smelling the different odours coming out from the tissues of the affected person’s body, clothing and sweat, and have trained dogs to do so. Apart from detecting cancers and malaria, the group has found that dogs can detect type 1diabetes. Some other groups claim that they have trained dogs to detect the onset of seizures in epileptic patients. One would expect that several other illnesses would soon be detected using dogs as diagnostic agents. That dogs have the remarkable ability to sniff and detect volatile chemical compounds (notably molecules that smell) has been known for centuries. It is for this reason that security guards in airports, customs and other public places use dogs to smell and identify drugs, explosives and other objectionable materials. Dogs have of course been used for centuries in hunting for animals (rabbits, foxes) in hunting expeditions missions and in environmental missions. The ability of animals like dogs, camels and rats to detect smells associated with disease appears due to the fact that they have anywhere between 150-300 million scent glands in their nose system, while we humans have but 5 million. This makes a dog smell 1000 to 10 million times better than us. This huge number allows for both diversity (for larger variety of smells) and sensitivity (for smaller amounts, and at more distant sources- note the ability of the camel). It is this great ability that has led dogs to detect the edible fungus, truffles, which lies under water, surrounding the roots of under-water plants).
Why not try in India?
India has a good dog training scheme which our crime branch, customs and forensic agencies use efficiently. Given the density of population, the ease of using rats in busy and rural areas, it might be a good idea to learn from the APOPO experience and attempt to train and use our local animals for quick and efficient detection of epidemics in the first instance; confirmation, if need be, can be taken up by sophisticated instruments-based diagnostic laboratories. This first ‘point of care’ detection can already help in alerting medical centres and health care workers to do the needful in terms of drug distribution, vaccination, and other measures to cut the spread. Our veterinary institutions might want to think about the feasibility of this idea, by choosing the best local animals, training them and deploying than in suburban and village health centres, particularly in states with high population density and limited diagnostic help.

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