The case for clean socks

The next time you venture outdoors, make sure you wear clean socks.

The next time you venture outdoors, make sure you wear clean socks.

No, not because you might be in an accident, as your mother might have warned you (about always wearing clean underwear). Clean socks will make you less attractive to mosquitoes.

Scientists have discovered that mosquitoes love smelly socks; the ranker the better. And we owe this to a Dutch scientist who stood naked in a dark room filled with mosquitoes recording what part of the body those blood-sucking little buggers were most attracted to. It was his smelly feet.

Stinky socks are being applied in a unique, pungent project in Tanzania to fight malaria, funded in part by the Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada. It’s results could have worldwide applications in controlling mosquitoes in general.

Take Canada, for example. The onslaught of mosquitoes in many regions this year has ranked among the hot topics for discussion, along with weird weather that’s brought floods, tornadoes and buckets upon buckets of rain and hail.

While malaria is not a major health concern here, mosquitoes carrying the potentially deadly West Nile virus and event the H1N1 virus most certainly are. Armies of mosquitoes with troops numbering gazillions upon gazillions have launched a relentless attack on local fronts.

The wave of water-saturated storms across Canada have left standing water ponds not seen in years. It’s a five-star environment ripe for clouds of mosquitoes to flourish.

In some areas, short of taking a bath in DEET, the bug-repelling chemical used in all top-selling sprays, it’s almost impossible to fend off the skeeter brigades. And even bathing in DEET, which is not advisable for obvious health concerns, human sweat quickly waters down the repelling strength of the chemical.

Municipalities have attempted to control mosquito populations over the years using chemical- or biological-control methods, concentrating efforts on standing waters. But this year, given the amount of standing water, one has a better chance of throwing a rock at the moon and hitting it than bringing those blood-sucking armies under control.

Back to the raunchy socks. Ever wonder why, no matter how much repellent you cake on your body, there’s an army of tiny mosquitoes conducting ground-level, stealth-like attacks ( on your ankles?

It’s your stinky feet, concluded Dutch scientist Bart Knols, who stood naked in that mosquito-filled dark room as a human target 15 years ago. Since then, scientists struggled to put those findings to use, according to science journals.

Enter Dr. Fedros Okumu, head of the malaria research project at Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute, who discovered the stinky-sock smell — which he mimics using a blend of eight rank chemicals — lures mosquitoes by the hoards to traps, where they are poisoned.

“The odour of human feet attracted four times as many mosquitoes,” Okumu found. “And the poison (in the traps) can kill upwards of 95 per cent of the mosquitoes.”

While the battle against malaria has been gaining ground indoors through various preventive measures, it’s the mosquitoes outside attracting concern.

“This is the first time that we are focusing on controlling mosquitoes outside of homes,” said Okumu, a Kenyan whose been ill with malaria several times. “The global eradication of malaria will not be possible without new technologies.”

This project wants to know how best to use the poison traps and if they can be produced affordably.

There’s no magic bullet in controlling mosquitoes but innovative thinking such as the stinky-sock study opens new windows and brings in a breath of fresh air on the problem.

Peter A. Singer, head of Grand Challenges Canada, says of the malaria project: “It’s bold, it’s innovative and it has the potential for big impact. . . . Who would have thought that a lifesaving technology was lurking in your laundry basket?”

So the next time you’re on the golf course, in the garden or out walking, wear clean socks. Make mom proud.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.