Awards: Most Innovative Health Market Innovation

Sub Category: Innovative Operational Processes

The APOPO program, which uses rats to detect tuberculosis was launched in 2004 in Tanzania and has expanded its operations to Mozambique.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a widespread disease. 1.7 million people die from TB each year. Only 50% of patients with TB are diagnosed. Left untreated, a person with active TB can infect 10-15 new people each year. A faster, more accurate diagnostic technology is needed to help curb the spread of this deadly disease.

This is where APOPO’s HeroRATs come in. Trained HeroRATs can quickly and accurately sniff out TB in human sputum samples. In Tanzania, APOPO offers second-line screening to their partner hospitals, which in turn has increased new case detection rates by 30 percent. The HeroRATs can evaluate 40 sputum samples in just seven minutes, equal to what a skilled lab technician will do in a full day’s work.

The concept is very simple: rats sniff a series of holes, under which human sputum samples are lined up for evaluation. They identify samples that contain TB bacteria by scratching at the hole. Their correct indications on known positive samples are rewarded with a food treat. Indications on unknown samples, if pin pointed by two rats or more, are confirmed using microscopy. Samples that are in fact positive with TB are then reported to the hospitals who then follow-up with the associated patient(s) for confirmation of diagnosis and treatment. On a weekly basis, the rats find an additional 5 to 15 new TB-positive patients.

APOPO aims at (i) Offering 1st line screening services in the near future (ii) extending its operations in Tanzania and possibly expand to work with prison units in the country to detect TB among inmates (iii) work with national TB programs and Research Institutes to conduct multi-country trials of using rats to detect TB across different continents.