12 November 2008 - 1 January 2009
Every year, instead of traditional Season’s Greetings cards, Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health supports charitable projects or organizations with activities that benefit animal welfare and people. The donation alternates between projects focussing on animals and projects that focus on the human-animal relationship. This year we will support APOPO, an organization training sniffer rats to save human lives. The rats (African giant pouched rats) are trained to detect landmines and UXO (unexploded ordnances).
Additionally their exceptionally sensitive noses are also being tested to see if they can detect tuberculosis bacteria in human sputum samples.
In the mid 1990s it was recognized that most mine clearance techniques were slow and expensive. Assisted by financial support from the Belgian government, APOPO (www.apopo.org) was set up with the objective of developing an efficient and less costly method for the detection of landmines.
Exploration and analysis of mine detection resulted in the unusual idea of training rats to detect explosives. After a feasibility study, APOPO started to breed and socialize African giant pouched rats imported from Tanzania and developed concepts for using these animals in mine clearance.
Despite extensive research efforts during the last decade, the only alternative method that reached the field was the use of mine detection dogs.
Rats have also shown significant potential to be good mine detectors:
Rats have a highly developed sense of smell;
Rats are easy to tame, breed and train and love performing repetitive tasks;
Rats are small, cheap, and easy to maintain and transport as well as adapting easily to different environments;
Rats are more easily transferred between trainers than dogs.
Trained and qualified as official landmine detectors.
At APOPO’s training area at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania the rats are trained. In 2004, the first group of rats was licensed according to the official tests based on the UN International Mine Actions Standards (IMAS) under the supervision of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) and the National Institute for Demining in Mozambique (IND).
The rats can replace detection by steel-nerved humans with metal detectors or trained dogs and are just as accurate as well as being too light to detonate a mine accidentally. Moreover one rat can search 100m2 of suspect land in 20 minutes, whereas a manual search would need two full days.
Detecting tuberculosis in human sputum samples
The traditional method for detecting tuberculosis (TB), a rapidly growing problem in developing countries, is slow and costly and rather inaccurate. In future, fighting TB successfully will depend very much on the capacity to detect cases quickly and accurately. Preliminary studies by APOPO indicate that trained rats are potentially more reliable, faster and more cost-effective in detecting TB infected human sputum samples than the current methods.
* APOPO is a Flemish abbreviation and stands for ’Anti-person mines de-mining product development’