March 15th, 2011 11:00 AMBy Tristan Pollock
One of the most difficult problems with tuberculosis is detecting it. In 2007, for example, half of all cases in Tanzania were missed, adding to a large death toll. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 million people die of tuberculosis yearly. One organization, launched in 2008, has an unusual solution: use 18-inch-long "HeroRATs" to sniff out the disease in samples provided by TB clinics. In Tanzania, HeroRATs have identified over 1,600 tuberculosis-positive samples (read: patients) where the diagnosis was initially missed by microscopy tests at local laboratories. This represents a 30 percent increase in the detection rate. The rats are remarkably accurate.
The HeroRATs idea was devised by Bart Weetjens, a Buddhist monk and the founder of APOPO, an organization that researches, develops and deploys rat-detection technology for humanitarian purposes. The other half of APOPO’s work is mentioned in its name, a Dutch acronym meaning Anti-Personnel Land Mines Detection Product Development. Similar to tuberculosis detection, where rats identify positive patients by sniffing sputum samples, rats trained to detect land mines are trained with TNT-tainted soil beginning at four weeks old. When a rat chooses correctly it is rewarded with food. As training progresses, rats learn to detect trace amounts of TNT in real, but deactivated, landmines buried at the HeroRAT landmine training field in Tanzania. Before receiving HeroRAT status and working in real minefields, each rat must ace a rigorous series of accredited APOPO tests and certifications by the National Institute of Demining in the respective country that the HeroRAT will be working.
Since beginning mine-removal operations in 2006, HeroRAT teams — humans and rats side-by-side — have returned over 2.1 million square meters of land to the Mozambique population, removing over 1,100 mines. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports that over 73,576 casualties worldwide from 1999 to 2009 were land-mine related, and in 2007 there were 5,426 recorded casualties, with nearly a fifth of them in 24 African countries.
The need for a worldwide low-cost highly effective solution to both land mines and tuberculosis detection is apparent and Weetjens hopes to fill that void, “APOPO is now standardizing our HeroRATs technology to enable large scale deployment and significantly increase the impact of of our humanitarian action. This will include expanding our operations to new countries as well as researching new scent-detection applications for our HeroRATs."
Photo: Xavier Rossi