Giant rats increase their attack on tuberculosis in Tanzania

Friday December 15 2017

An African giant pouched rat sniffs for traces

An African giant pouched rat sniffs for traces of landmine explosives at APOPO's training facility in Morogoro on June 17, 2016. AFP PHOTO | CARL DE SOUZA 

By REUTERS
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The use of giant rats to sniff out the potentially deadly disease tuberculosis (TB) in Tanzania is set to nearly double by the end of the year due to successful detection rates, a charity who trains them said on Thursday.

African Giant Pouched Rats, which are taught to detect TB using their olfactory abilities, have been so successful at the task that they will now service nearly 60 clinics countrywide, up from 29.

The rats, which can measure up to three feet (0.9 m) and can spot TB in samples of human mucus, were introduced in Tanzania in 2007 by Belgian charity APOPO as an alternative to more costly and slower traditional chemical testing.

“APOPO is very encouraged about the support and trust in our diagnostic service,” Lena Fiebig, the non-profit’s head of TB, said in a statement.

Deadliest infection

Tuberculosis, which is curable and preventable, is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), killing 1.7 million people in 2016.

In Tanzania, some 287 in 100,000 people are thought to be TB-infected, putting the country among 30 nations that the WHO views as TB hotspots due to the disease’s high incidence.

Yet, lack of money or awareness often means people in the east African nation fail to get screened.

Under the rat programme’s growing footprint, mucus samples are dispatched by motorbike from across the country to laboratories, including one in the capital Dar es Salaam that employs 10 rats. Seventeen more clinics will be located in Dar es Salaam.

100 per cent accuracy

APOPO said trained rats take 20 minutes to screen 100 samples - compared to four days for a lab technician - with almost 100 per cent accuracy although the rodents cannot distinguish between normal and drug-resistant strains.

The rats, nicknamed ‘HeroRATs’, undergo a training process that begins when they are four weeks old and involves receiving banana rewards for good behaviour.

APOPO’s rats are also at work fighting tuberculosis in Mozambique and Ethiopia with APOPO one of various organisations fighting to meeting the global plan to end TB by 2030.

The rats are also deployed to detect explosives in minefields from Cambodia to Colombia.

-Thomson Reuters Foundation