Belgian scientists have trained giant African rats to sniff tuberculosis (TB) from patients and are planning to use these rodents to diagnose inmates with the contagious disease in crowded prisons in Tanzania and Mozambique.
According to an Independent report, the African giant pouched at which has a very strong and reliable sense of smell, will be used to prevent the spread of TB among inmates, which is the leading cause of death in many African prisons.
A Belgian non-governmental organization APOPO, which has been using the rats to sniff out landmines, trained the rats to also detect the disease. The organization received funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“We believe our unique TB Detection Rat technology will prove itself as an effective mass-screening tool,” APOPO’s U.S. director, Charlie Richter, toldThomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Reuters.
“We then aim to expand the program to all prisons, shantytowns, factories and other settings in Tanzania, Mozambique and other high TB-burden countries, as well as in high-risk groups such as those individuals living with HIV/AIDS. This will improve and save lives all over the globe at a low cost,” Richter said.
APOPO says the new method may improve the accuracy, speed and cost of testing for TB, leading to fewer cases being diagnosed.
Other animals, such as dogs, have been used around the world for experimental screening of diseases, but so far these rats have been the most successive with an almost 100 percent accuracy, The Guardian reported.
TB cases are normally detected by sputum smear microscopy, a slow and costly process that has not changed for years and is not very accurate. The WHO insists that one lab technician should not test more than 20 patients a day, and says the chances of misdiagnosis are high if this exceeded.
An untreated tuberculosis patient can infect up to a dozen people a year. Almost 10 million people worldwide contracted TB in 2014, and some 1.5 million died from it. The disease is largely curable, but first it must be diagnosed.
That where the rats come in.
“Experiments show that these rats can detect a sample with TB parasites in a second and evidence has shown that they are able to sniff out even those with very minimal parasites,” Khadija Abraham, an expert at Tanzania’s National Leprosy and Tuberculosis Programme, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.