The developers of an innovative outdoor decoy device that uses the odour of smelly socks or a similar synthetic smell to lure and kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes, have just won a grant to test their design and then take it from the lab through production to market.

Grand Challenges Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have jointly awarded Tanzanian entomologist Dr. Fredros Okumu and his team at the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, East Africa, the grant in order eventually for their mosquito traps to be available at low cost to the communities that most need them.

Every year, malaria infects 250 million and kills nearly 800,000 people around the world, most of them young children.

Dr. Peter A. Singer, Chief Executive Officer of Grand Challenges Canada, told the press that the innovative device could “contribute significantly to accelerating the elimination of malaria and save lives”.

The decoy device, which resembles a portable weather station in the shape of a large box with louvred sides, is placed outside the home and complements indoor mosquito-foiling strategies such as bed nets and sprays.

In their research, Okumu and his team at the Ifakara Health Institute found that the most effective way to lure mosquitoes to the decoy device was to bait them with the odour of smelly socks, or using synthetic chemicals with a similar smell. They found that four times as many mosquitoes are lured by both the real odour and the synthetic version as they are by humans.

Once they are inside the decoy, the mosquitoes remain trapped or they are poisoned and die.

One may ask, why so much emphasis on smelly socks, why not just go for the synthetic bait?

According to the Washington Post, Okumu said smelly socks were readily available, you don’t need to mix any chemicals and you can set up production in cottage factories. They are currently testing lots of ways to get hold of the smelly socks smell, including asking schoolchildren to put pads inside their shoes, wear them all day, then hand them in to the researchers.

Okumu said while there has been considerable progress in the global fight against malaria, there was still a lot of work to be done.

“Malaria has claimed so many lives, including those of people close to me, and my hope is that this innovative device will be part of the solution,” he said.

But new ideas don’t always make it from the inventor’s bench to the marketplace, there are many hurdles to be overcome.

Something Joseph L. Rotman, a philanthropist and businessman who chairs the board of directors of Grand Challenges Canada, spoke about:

“Through a lifetime of hard lessons, I know that discovery is not enough.”

“Discoveries also need to be implemented in the real world through business and social innovation,” he added.

This is one reason that Grand Challenges Canada has stepped in with the grant, under its Integrated Innovation approach. They expect, that with this financial support, Okumu and his team will be able to test and improve the device and be able to scale up production and get it developed by the community in two years.

Sources: Grand Challenges Canada, Washington Post.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD