Giant Rats Can Spot Deadly Diseases

Grace Higgins | October 31st, 2019

A crack team of researchers has been busy training giant rats to save us from deadly diseases. This team from Tanzania has trained African pouched rats to make the life-saving discovery of spotting cases of tuberculosis that are routinely missed by health clinics.

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Riziwan is one of those rats, living in a sleek glass and aluminum cage, when let loose he immediately set to work sniffing out any victims of the deadly disease. Riziwan had in a matter of minutes discovered 13 people who may be inflicted with tuberculosis. This would be life-saving news to the people, as they were all from samples that the health clinic had advised were clear. These giant African pouched rats are saving many lives, working for the Belgian organization Apopo’s TB center in Morogoro, Tanzania.

Saving hundreds of lives is now just a daily routine for these rats. Rizwan is almost a year old and would have been trained since birth to do this job to pick up the smell of the disease – one that is notoriously tough to detect: tuberculosis. To complete his work he is placed in a large cage and then the scientist will place dishes of human spit samples to sniff.

All the samples have been heat treated so there is no risk of infection to either the rats or the humans working in the lab. When he smells the disease he scratches the metal bottom of the cage to indicate that he can smell the disease.

And at the seventh hole, he scratches again, and then once more at the eighth. At this point the training supervisor presses a clicker so that Riziwan receives a reward – this is because one of the samples was a controlled test and was correctly identified. It earns Riziwan his favorite meal a mash of bananas, avocados and rat pellets.

In one day, Riziwan can check 100 samples, and when his work is done for the day he is returned to his large open-air playpen. At this point, the testing cage will be cleaned, and another rat will be brought in to test Riziwan’s findings. On average they discover 40% of TB cases that have been missed by local clinics.

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