When life gives you smelly socks …

By • Published: October 26th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Mothers across the world know it all too well: the odor of smelly socks.

The unwelcome stench that leaves laundry-doers pinching their noses may actually be good for humanity. That’s right. Researchers in Tanzania are using smelly socks as test bait in an experiment to determine which of three items work best to draw mosquitoes into small outdoor traps, where they will be poisoned to death.

This isn’t just a desperate attempt at pest control. The study is one step in the process of developing a tool meant to reduce the spread of malaria.

Infected mosquitoes spread the potentially fatal illness through their bite. Malaria torments victims with fevers, chills and intense sweating, and sometimes causes headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The parasite that causes the disease can lie dormant in a person for months or years after transmission, suddenly activating without warning. According to the World Health Organization, malaria killed almost a million people in 2008. Most were children in Africa, but the disease also affects many in Asia and South America.

While tools such as mosquito nets around beds and pesticide coatings on interior walls help protect people inside their homes, researchers are looking for more ways to prevent transmission of the disease outdoors.

Stinky socks have effectively attracted mosquitoes in lab trials. Now scientists will test them against a synthetic bait scented with ammonia and acids, and pads that children will first wear inside their shoes. All three are meant to draw mosquitoes with scents similar to those people exude.

If the traps prove effective, one of their most enticing characteristics will be their relatively low cost. An inexpensive way to fight one of the world’s major health problems? Now that’s pretty appealing, even if it doesn’t smell too good.