Giant Rats Expand Tuberculosis Fight in Tanzania

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 thanks to successful detection rates, a charity who trains them said 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 3 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 nonprofit’s head of TB, said in a statement.

Tanzania a TB hotspot

Tuberculosis, which is curable and preventable, is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organization (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 because of the disease’s high incidence.

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

Rats quick, accurate

Under the rat program’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 with four days for a lab technician, with almost 100 percent 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 4 weeks old and involves receiving banana rewards for good behavior.

APOPO’s rats are also at work fighting tuberculosis in Mozambique and Ethiopia with APOPO one of various organizations 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.