Rats Trained to Detect Tuberculosis in Kenya and Tanzania
In Tanzania, African giant pouched rats are being trained to detect tuberculosis (TB) in a groundbreaking effort to improve disease diagnosis. These rats, which have already proven their value in detecting landmines, have a remarkable sense of smell that allows them to identify the scent of TB in patient samples with great accuracy. The rats work with scientists at the APOPO Project, a Belgian non-profit organization that specializes in training rats for humanitarian purposes.
In 2016, APOPO conducted a study that compared the rats’ detection rates to those of traditional laboratory tests for TB. The study found that the rats were able to identify TB in samples with a sensitivity that was comparable to that of smear microscopy and other commonly used tests. Importantly, the rats were also able to detect TB in samples from patients who were co-infected with HIV, a group that is often difficult to diagnose using standard methods.
Joseph Soka, the program manager for TB at APOPO, explained that the rats’ sensitivity to TB is not affected by the presence of HIV, making them a valuable tool for TB diagnosis in populations with high rates of HIV co-infection. He also noted that the rats are able to process samples quickly, which could speed up the diagnosis process and help to ensure that patients receive timely treatment.
Overall, the use of rats to detect TB represents a promising new approach to disease diagnosis in low-resource settings. By leveraging the remarkable abilities of these animals, scientists and healthcare professionals may be able to improve TB detection rates and ultimately reduce the burden of this deadly disease in affected communities.
APOPO, an organization known for training rats to detect landmines, has expanded its efforts to include the detection of tuberculosis (TB). Since adopting the TB detection program in 2008, the rats have been working in 21 medical centers in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam. According to experts, rats are faster at detecting TB than traditional laboratory methods.
In many developing countries, TB diagnosis relies on outdated techniques that require the use of microscopes to examine sputum samples from potentially infected patients. However, the use of rats could greatly speed up the process. As Dhaval Shah, a veterinary pathologist at Pathologists Lancet Kenya, explains, “The conventional laboratory techniques can take anywhere from two hours to even 14 days per sample, depending on what technique you use. While the rats will be able to complete testing of fifty samples within two hours, and this would be ideal in far or remote places like Mozambique.”
TB is a deadly disease that claimed the lives of 1.6 million people in 2021, including 187,000 people with HIV, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is the 13th leading cause of death worldwide and the second leading infectious killer after COVID-19. In Mozambique, where 162,000 people contracted TB in 2018, there is a great need for a speedy, reliable, and affordable detection method.
By using rats to detect TB, it is hoped that the need for time-consuming microscope testing can be eliminated. This could lead to faster diagnosis and treatment, which could ultimately help to save lives and reduce the global burden of this deadly disease.