- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

NAIROBI, Kenya — Rats trained to sniff out land mines will soon be used to diagnose tuberculosis in HIV patients and catch smugglers bringing drugs or guns across borders, scientists say.

Scientists at a Tanzanian university pioneered the use of giant pouched rats to spot plastic land mines missed by metal detectors.

Now they say the same training methods will be used to teach the rats to detect TB in samples sent from hospitals, or smuggled guns or drugs from border posts.

Early tests at the Apopo Center, a Belgian research program at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania, suggest that the rats are more accurate and much faster than humans.

“They recognized the TB samples accurately 63 percent of the time, which compares with only 49 percent of microscope diagnosis in laboratories in the developing world,” said Bart Weetjens, director of the Apopo Center.

“More important, they can check something in the order of 150 samples in 30 minutes, which would take three laboratory technicians checking smears on a microscope a day or more.”

The rats, which grow as large as a domestic cat, are trained by being rewarded with a piece of banana or a peanut when they correctly identify a tainted sample.

Their sense of smell is as powerful as that of a dog, but they take more easily to performing repetitive tasks without getting bored.

Tanzania’s department of defense also wants to adopt the technology. Sealed air samples from suspect cargo containers would be taken to mobile centers near border posts and opened under airtight laboratory conditions.

The rats are trained to scratch when they sniff explosives or drugs.

The proposal was agreed upon at the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, held in Angola last month.

Health experts at the meeting agreed to push for the process to be expanded to fight tuberculosis.

Roughly 2.5 million people die of the airborne disease each year, with Sub-Sahara Africa and Southeast Asia logging the most cases. Doctors fear the global death toll could rise to 8 million in 10 years.

“Early detection of TB is crucial, especially for HIV-positive patients, because the treatment is so much more effective if it is administered in the early stages of the illness,” Dr. Weetjens said.

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