Chickens Can Protect You From Malaria

Deadly mosquitoes take one whiff of chickens and fly off as fast as they can.

Malaria-transmitting mosquitoes avoid chickens, according to a new study that finds the deadly insects take a whiff of chickens and turn in the other direction.

Odors emitted by chickens and possibly other species could therefore provide protection for humans at risk of getting mosquito-transmitted diseases like malaria, reports the study, published in the Malaria Journal.

"We were surprised to find that malaria mosquitoes are repelled by the odors emitted by chickens," co-author Rickard Ignell of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences said in a press release.

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"This study," he continued, "shows for the first time that malaria mosquitoes actively avoid feeding on certain animal species, and that this behavior is regulated through odor cues."

To determine which species the mosquitoes prefer as prey, Ignell and his colleagues collected data on the population of human and domestic animals in three Ethiopian villages. They also collected blood-fed mosquitoes to test for the source of the blood that the mosquitoes had fed on.

The researchers discovered that while the mosquito Anopheles arabiensis strongly prefers human over animal blood when seeking dinner, it randomly feeds on cattle, goats and sheep when outdoors. In all settings, however, it avoids chickens, according to the new study.

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The scientists next isolated compounds found in chicken feathers and placed them in mosquito traps set in 11 thatched houses in the villages. In at least one residence, the researchers even placed a live chicken in a cage near the trap. A single volunteer, aged between 27 and 36 years old, slept under an untreated bed net in each of the houses.

The study period lasted 11 days. Control traps were deployed as well, using hair, wool and feathers from other types of birds.

Ignell and his team found that significantly fewer mosquitoes were caught in traps baited with chicken compounds than in control traps. The live chicken also worked wonders in repelling the blood-sucking insects.

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"People in sub-Saharan Africa have suffered considerably under the burden of malaria over an extended period of time and mosquitoes are becoming increasingly physiologically resistant to pesticides, while also changing their feeding habits, for example, by moving from indoors to outdoors," Ignell said.

"For this reason there is a need to develop novel control methods," he added. "In our study, we have been able to identify a number of natural odor compounds which could repel host-seeking malaria mosquitoes and prevent them from getting in contact with people."

Maybe we'll all be spritzing ourselves with eau de chicken as a result, if the goal is to ward off mosquitoes and the diseases that they can carry.

As for sleeping next to a live chicken, people living in the areas in which the research was conducted share their living quarters with their livestock, so having an actual chicken close by at night would not necessarily be unusual and could offer health benefits until the researchers are better able to pinpoint the mosquito-repelling compounds.