African rats have been trained to detect tuberculosis, the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene reports.
Captive Gambian pouched rats (Cricetomys gamiancus) were able to smell TB after being trained for 6 months. The rats have been found to be more accurate than traditional microscopic tests.
While the original test found 13.3 percent of people positive for TB, the rats sniffed 19 percent, which, upon closer microscopic examination, were shown positive.
The rats were trained by being rewarded for stopping for a period over TB positive samples, and not rewarded if they stopped over non-TB positive samples.
While the best test for TB testing is culturing the bacteria in sputum for weeks, the rats were able to detect TB almost instantaneously.
While this low tech approach is earning accolades as an interesting approach, many doubt that it will serve as the future standard system that could be used universally.
The rats used were captive ones, as wild ones are thought to be too vicious, so no market for medically related Gambian rats is coming soon either.
At the same time, the use of African rats acts as a unique example in a field of very few in which locally sourced solutions can be found for a local problem. Simultaneously, the researchers, and funding for this project, came from the United States, and the local solution was found through intercontinental sources.
Worldwide, there were 9.4 new cases of TB in 2008, with over 30 percent of these occurring in Africa.
In Botswana alone, there were 9000 cases of TB in 2009, resulting in 700 deaths.
Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease which commonly affects the lungs. It is transmitted from person to person via droplets, often coughed into the air by a person with the active respiratory disease.
TB is treatable with a 6 month course of antibiotics, though multi-drug resistant TB is on the rise in Botswana, with over 3 percent of cases being multi-drug resistant.
Among those who have had TB previously and are being retreated, multi-drug resistance was shown in 13 percent of cases. There is a high incidence of TB among those with HIV, with over 4000 of Tuberculosis cases being among those who are HIV positive.
March was Tuberculosis Awareness month in Botswana, with awareness programs being put forth by the government.