A technology that relies on trained African giant pouched rats to sniff out tuberculosis and diagnose the disease faster than conventional diagnostic methods is helping save thousands of lives in Tanzania.
According to APOPO, a Belgian non-governmental organisation which has been training the giant pouched rats to carry out the mass screenings, the rat technology is fast, cheap and has the potential to greatly lower screening costs in poor countries.
With funding from USAID, the rats have been trained to distinguish between positive and negative sputum samples using their strong sense of smell.
“These animals have an extraordinary sense of smell. They use their sense of smell in everything they do rather than sight. TB has a smell to these rats so it is easier and faster to detect if a sputum sample has TB or not,” said Ezekiel Mwakyonde, APOPO’s rat trainer.
More than 340,000 TB samples have been screened under the programme, halting over 36,000 further infections.
It has also increased detection rates by over 40% in several partnered clinics.
A patient said: “I was tested positive after undergoing several check ups. I underwent the first check but the results were negative. The second test was the same but when I went for the third check I was confirmed positive”.
Scientists in East Africa plan to exploit the highly developed sense of smell of the rats to carry out mass screening for tuberculosis among inmates of crowded prisons in Tanzania and Mozambique.