African Rats: The Best TB and Landmine Detectives
Trained giant African rats, with their extraordinary sense of smell, can detect whether or not a sputum sample contains TB indicators 48 times faster than a human lab technician. They also are brilliant at detecting mines—and won’t set them off, unlike
dogs or humans, because they are so light.
Ashoka Fellow Bart Weetjens has shown how to put these “HeroRATS” to work in Tanzania. Now he and his HeroRATS organization, APOPO, have been asked to bring this life-saving innovation to the 11 countries of the Great Lakes Region in Africa.
A HeroRAT can screen 40 sputum samples for TB in 10 minutes—a day’s work for a lab technician. HeroRATS are accredited according to International Mine Action Standards (IMAS), just like mine detection dogs, and 23 HeroRAT teams are now deployed
in Mozambique. HeroRATS are cheaper to breed, train, feed, maintain and transport; the use of HeroRATS speeds up landmine clearance and reduces operational costs; the rats are highly intelligent and social creatures, with an highly developed sense of smell;
they are adapted to the environment; and they love to perform repetitive search tasks in exchange for food rewards. Moreover, the African giant rat has a lifespan of eight years, much longer than other types of rats, and can be used for several years after
the one year training period.
APOPO now has a proven, recognized approach—and the challenge to bring it to scale quickly across 11 of Africa’s most troubled countries. APOPO is demonstrating how to do so in Tanzania. It has established a certified animal training center in Morogoro. Skilled
trainers from there then go out to the most affected parts of the country to help local people learn how to train and use the rats.
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