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Tanzanian Rats Help in Identifying Tuberculosis

2016-12-17

Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide.

It killed about 2,000,000 people last year.

TB is an infectious bacterial disease that usually attacks the lungs. If the number of deaths from TB is to be reduced, doctors must be able to accurately diagnose and quickly treat patients.

That can be difficult in developing countries, but a health center in Tanzania is now using trained animals to find the bacterium in people.

Giant Pouched Rats are able to smell tuberculosis germs in human saliva. When they do, they stop moving. They wait for food from their trainer.

Fidelis John is one of the rat trainers. He works for a group called APOPO. He says the rats have a stronger sense of smell than other animals and can easily recognize tuberculosis.

Health workers now use a 100-year-old method to diagnose TB. It is not as effective as the rats. Often, health care workers have trouble identifying the disease in patients. This can cause TB to spread.

Dr. Richard Banda works in Tanzania. He is the acting country representative for the World Health Organization.

Dr. Banda says the WHO estimates that only a third of people with TB are diagnosed as being infected. Thirty thousand people die from the disease every year in Tanzania. That is about 82 people a day.

APOPO believes their rats -- which are native to Tanzania -- are an effective way to help solve the problem of TB misdiagnosis.

Trainer John agrees.

“Rat(s) can use the time in between 10 and 20 minutes to finish evaluating 100 samples -- a task that would have taken a lab technician a time of 4 to 5 days to finish that job.”

After the rats complete their investigation, laboratory workers test samples. ab results are returned to hospitals within 24 hours, so those found to be infected can quickly begin medical treatment.

APOPO says since the rats have been used, they have identified thousands of infections that were missed with traditional tests.

The group is planning to use the rats in other countries, and train them to find other diseases.

I’m Caty Weaver.

Sophie Tremblay reported this story from Tanzania. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted her story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

diagnose – v. to recognize (a disease, illness, etc.) by examining someone

germs – n. a very small living thing that causes disease

saliva – n. the liquid produced in your mouth that keeps your mouth moist and makes it easier to swallow food

sample – n. a small amount of something that gives you information about the thing it was taken from