National News

The Tuberculosis-Detecting Rats of Tanzania

60 Second Docs Animal Style introduced our readers to the wonders of African Giant Pouched rats, nicknamed HeroRATs by APOPO (an acronym for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling: “Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development” in English, the non-profit NGO that breeds and trains Cricetomys Gambianus — again in English, rats.

HeroRATs “proved adept at detecting landmines,” reports The, “clearing 22m square metres of land in countries including Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia.”

More deadly than landmines, though, by far, is tuberculosis.

World Health Organization identifies tuberculosis as the world’s top infectious killer, resulting in 1.7m deaths in 2016. Detection rates using conventional techniques can be as low as 20%.

The APOPO website boasts that the HeroRATS’ detection method is failsafe. Any rat-suspect samples are rechecked using WHO endorsed methods, and if TB is confirmed, APOPO notifies the clinic.

The Guardian’s Kate Lyons describes in detail how a rat named Riziwan goes about his job:

“Riziwan is placed in a large cage. Into its base, technicians insert a metal bar holding 10 dishes of human sputum, sent to Apopo by a TB clinic. All samples have been heat-treated so there is no risk of infection to either rats or humans. One by one, metal grates in the bottom of the cage are opened to allow Riziwan to sniff each petri dish.

“Riziwan … moves on quickly (past) lots one and two, but at the third he pauses and scratches the metal bottom of the cage, indicating that he smells the disease. … Harumi Ramadhani, the training supervisor, presses a clicker, meaning Riziwan has correctly identified a control sample from one of the clinics. It earns him a reward of mashed banana and avocado….”

APOPO believes their methods could improve clinic detection rates by up to 40%. HeroRATs “can get through 100 samples in 10 to 20 minutes, while a human with a microscope takes four days to test the same number.”

“The Guardian” takes a remarkable interest in the work of HeroRATs. You can find one of their long reads on the subject here.

Learn more about APOPO and even contribute to the training and work of HeroRATS by visiting their website.

About the author

Brad Hall

Brad Hall

Brad Hall is a pastor and the author of "Lousy Roger and Other Tales: A collection of Lectionary-based Sermons," available on In 2014, after 27 years of courtship, he married pop culture scholar Deborah Ann Miller. They share a place with two dogs, Scotty and Demitasse, and two cats, Quirkie and Brucie.

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