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Urban Jungle: Here's why we did it for a rat

posted 13 Aug 2011, 23:40 by Choy Lin Lee   [ updated 15 Aug 2011, 19:09 ]

(Photo courtesy Eric Nathan)

Subiaco Rotaract held Urban Jungle last Friday, to support APOPO HeroRATs, an extraordinary innovative social enterprise which trains Giant African rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. The idea was conceived by Belgian Zen Monk and former product engineer Bart Weetjens, after reading an article in New Scientist about gerbils being trained to detect explosives. Dissatisfied with his role in an consumer based, materialistic society, he directed his attention to solving a humanitarian problem - landmines.  Landmines pose a huge structural barrier for development in many war torn countries, which are dependent upon the intervention of foreign organizations for their specialized aid. Bart Weetjens wanted to find a better solution, a way of using local resources to empower the people living in these areas with the ability to help themselves. He found the answer using Giant African rats, which are native to sub-Sahara Africa, and have a keen sense of smell. It is this sense of smell which is used to detect the landmines, whereby a handler can then remove the mines. Not only is this process safer, it is also more efficient. 2 HeroRATs can screen 200sqm in under 90 minutes, whilst this would take a human with a metal detector an entire day. 

Later, Bart Weetjens then developed the rat detection technology for tuberculosis detection. Tuberculosis is a easily transmissible infection, spread by airborne transmission. Existing detection methods have a reliability of about 40-60%.  Amazingly, using HeroRATs as a second line screening method has increased the detection rate of tuberculosis by 40% compared with existing methods. To date, over 2000 cases of tuberculosis have been discovered using HeroRATs in Tanzanian hospitals alone, which were undiagnosed using microscopy. As every undiagnosed, infected person spreads it to 10-15 people each year, this means the rats have stopped at least 20 000 new cases of tuberculosis in its tracks. Even more impressive is that a HeroRAT can screen 40 samples in 7 minutes, whilst a skilled lab technician would take a whole day. 

So whilst HeroRATs may sound like a novel and quirky cause about rats, it's ultimately about people.  It is actually a very intelligent, innovative way of solving some very serious humanitarian issues, just with some lateral thinking and a few Giant African rats!

For more information about APOPO's HeroRATs, you can go to their official site here



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