Rats have gained a pretty bad reputation throughout the centuries for spreading death and disease, but perhaps we’ve been too quick to judge these furry friends. Authorities in Southern Africa have shown that the Giant Pouched Rat, a slightly bigger version of its European and Asian cousins, are as adept at stopping disease as they are at spreading it. These rats can sniff out tuberculosis in the overcrowded prisons of Tanzania and Mozambique and play an important role in preventing outbreaks of this deadly disease among the most vulnerable populations.
While tuberculosis may seem like a disease of the past for those in the West, in Africa the lung infection is still rampant. According to the World Health Organization, South Africa is one of the countries with the highest burden of TB, and in 2013, the disease was the leading cause of death there, responsible for around 450,000 deaths.
Those serving sentences and working within prisons are considered to be at a significantly higher risk due their close and cramped living quarters. This is where the disease-sniffing rats, which can grow up to three-feet in size, come in. In a program funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the rats have been specifically trained to distinguish the difference between positive and negative TB samples in order to identify tuberculosis patients. The Independent reported.
Unlike lab tests for TB, which can take up to four days, a trained rat can screen up to 100 samples in only 20 minutes. According to Newser, the animals have a near perfect accuracy for picking up the disease.
"The early detection of TB cases enhances an early treatment initiation which also reduces transmission or dissemination of TB to others from an untreated patient," Dr. Georgies Mgode, the tuberculosis program manager for Apopo, a Belgian non-governmental organization that has been training these rats, told The Independent.
The pouched rat has a highly sensitive nose, and is even trained to help sniff out bombs and landmines. The rats are trained to pick out the scent of TB in mucus as soon as they open their eyes, and are considered ready for action at nine months. So far, hundreds of thousands of TB samples have been sniffed out by the giant rodents, and they're preventing future infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tuberculosis is a disease caused when the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis attacks the lungs, or in less common cases, the kidney, spine, and even brain. The condition is spread through the air, usually when an infected person sneezes, coughs, speak, or even sings. It is characterized by a bad cough, pain in the chest, weakness or fatigue, weight loss, no appetite, chills, fever, and sweating at night. Interestingly, not everyone who is infected with TB will experience the disease. People at higher risk for developing the TB disease are those who have an HIV infection, those who have been infected with TB within the last two years, those who have other health problems, and individuals who abuse drugs or alcohol.
Tuberculosis is not just a problem in South Africa, and just last year WHO announced that the disease “rivalled AIDS” as the leading cause of death due to infection, worldwide. In 2014, 1.1 million people died from TB, compared to 1.2 million global deaths from HIV/AIDS, Reuters reported.