How Funky Foot Odor Could Help Save Lives

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Fifteen years ago a Dutch scientist stood in a room, naked, and let himself be swarmed by mosquitoes. The idea was to see which part of the body the bugs were most attracted to. Turns out, it’s the feet — the stinkier the better.

The insects’ preference for feet inspired malaria researchers to try to harness the smelly scent that wafts out of so many people’s shoes. The hope is that it can be used to curb the spread of deadly malaria, which is carried and transmitted by mosquitoes.

Now Dr. Fredros Okumu of Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute may have found a way: using a mixture of eight chemicals, he says he can replicate a pungent foot odor that attracts four times as many mosquitoes as a human volunteer. He’s developed a trap that uses the smell to lure bugs in; the poison in the trap then kills 95% of mosquitoes, he says, making this a potentially potent tool in the fight against a life-threatening but preventable disease.

The United Nations estimates that malaria kills about 780,000 people per year — most of them young African children — out of more than 200 million cases. (As a point of comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are 1,500 cases of malaria in the United States each year.) Although some worry that the complete eradication of the disease is a pipe dream in the absence of a vaccine, the U.N. recently reiterated its commitment to achieving that very goal by 2015.

Ideas like Okumu’s could help, especially when they’re bolstered by the private sector. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced on Wednesday that Okumu and the Ifakara Health Institute would receive a $775,000 grant to develop the traps. This is following a $100,000 grant Okumu received from the foundation in May 2009, which he used to prove that his concept can work. And the foundation’s enthusiasm is clear. “We think it’s a bold enough idea that, wow, if this actually works, holy cow,” Gates spokeswoman Michal Fishman tells TIME.

One goal this round is to find a cheap way to produce the traps, which currently sell for between $4 and $27. As with many aid efforts that center on Africa, achieving low production costs could prove a crucial factor in how effective the concept can be.

Residual spraying and insecticide-treated nets have helped foil mosquitoes indoors — the U.N. estimates that these have saved roughly 750,000 lives over the past decade — but trap networks like Okumu’s can further reduce infection rates by stopping bugs before they get to the house. “There are containment solutions,” Fishman says. “They’re working really well, but not well enough.”

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.