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TANZANIA | Rats to the Rescue

Tess Abbott

Rats are widely seen as pests in Africa, hated for the damage they do to crops and food stocks. But a Tanzanian-based Belgian NGO named Apopo is changing perceptions – by training African giant pouched rats to sniff out landmines and detect tuberculosis.

Rigorously trained over nine months, Apopo’s landmine detection rats learn to stop and scratch at the ground when they pick up the scent of TNT, in return for food rewards. With an acute sense of smell and a body weight too light to set off mines, the rodents have proven highly effective. Since 2006, Apopo claims to have helped clear nearly 18 million square meters of land of explosive devices in Africa and South-East Asia.

Since 2007, Apopo’s rats have also been tackling tuberculosis in Tanzania and, more recently, Mozambique. Working with sputum samples placed underneath a glass laboratory cage, the rodents learn to pause and scratch when they detect a positive sample. According to the WHO, nine million people a year get sick with TB, and health systems miss one-third of them. Undiagnosed patients can infect others with the airborne disease, which can be deadly if untreated.

In 2014 alone, Apopo claims to have detected an additional 1,412 cases of TB from samples that were initially found negative by conventional screening at health clinics.Haruni Ramadhani, a quality control supervisor at the Apopo lab in Tanzania, said, “Mycobacterium tuberculosis can hide from the microscope lens but cannot disguise the odor it produces from our rats.”

Published: Jun 20, 2015. By Tess Abbott,
Copyright © 2014 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd

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