Tanzania to increase the use of TB-sniffing giant rats

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The use of giant rats to sniff out 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 is quoted in a Reuters Africa report as saying.

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 report says 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 Tanzania, some 287 in 100,000 people are thought to be TB-infected, putting the country among 30 nations that the World Health Organisation (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.

The report says 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.

APOPO said trained rats take 20 minutes to screen 100 samples – compared to four days for a lab technician – with almost 100% 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.

Reuters Africa report

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