A Nose Knows: Hero Rats Sniff Out Tuberculosis and Land Mines

A Nose Knows: Hero Rats Sniff Out Tuberculosis and Land Mines

Bart Weetjens, founder of the rat-training group APOPO, discusses how vermin can—and do—save human lives.

Hero rats will have to do it in the future because the interest for mine action is decreasing.

Goldie. This was the name that Bart Weetjens gave to the hamster he got for his ninth birthday. The four-legged, furry present kickstarted his lifelong interest in rodents, which, years later, led to a truly astonishing line of work: Weetjens runs a world-class facility in Morogoro, Tanzania, that trains African giant pouch rats to sniff out land mines and tuberculosis. “Rats are thought of as a cause of disease, they are not necessarily a solution to disease—well, we turned this around completely,” says Weetjens, the founder of APOPO (a Dutch acronym, it translates to Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development). The rodents were first trained to detect landmines, scratching at the ground when they smelled TNT. Then Weetjens had an epiphany: Living and working in Tanzania—an area void of landmines but with relatively high rates of tuberculosis—he decided to test if rats could smell the disease. Could they ever. To date, the rats have helped to diagnose more than 2,290 new TB cases, which were previously undetected by microscopy. Because it is estimated that each person with active TB can infect up to 15 healthy persons per year, the rats have potentially prevented more than 22,900 individuals from contracting the disease.

TakePart travelled to the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England, to pick the brains of the world’s biggest thinkers. These Innovators in Action are changing the face of the future with bold new ideas and profound enthusiasm. Motivated by personal experience and fueled by the hope that things can get better, these innovators—each of them true social entrepreneurs—are improving our world, one brilliant business idea at a time.

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