In a lab in Tanzania, Serafina has dramatically improved health care, helping increase tuberculosis detection by about 45 percent. She has four paws, inquisitive whiskers and superhuman powers.

Serafina is a giant pouched rat. She and other rats have extraordinary noses for sniffing out tuberculosis (TB).

TB is a serious global health threat. In 2015, the World Health Organization reported that 1.5 million people died from the disease, making it the leading cause of death from a single infectious disease in the world. It’s preventable, treatable and curable with early detection, but scientists estimate that 1 in 3 cases goes undiagnosed.

Rats like Serafina can help provide that speedy diagnosis, after graduating from an intensive, nine-month training process developed by the nonprofit organization APOPO.

“Normally, a technician at a TB clinic is checking 20 to 25 samples in a day,” said Fidelis John, a lab technician at the non-profit organization APOPO. A trained rat, on the other hand, can test 100 samples in only 20 minutes.

“Serafina has saved a lot of lives.”

How do you train a rat?

Ensuring a correct diagnosis is a team effort. With Serafina in her testing cage, 10 medical samples are placed under holes in the cage floor. She runs down the line, sniffing each sample, and if she smells the right chemicals, organic compounds associated with tuberculosis, she stops. Scratching for four seconds to indicate a match, Serafina gets a treat, and her lab techs confirm her diagnosis under a microscope.

Rat standing on lab tech's shoulder (© Maarten Boersema)
“Hero Rats” have increased TB detection by 45 percent at partner clinics. (© Maarten Boersema)

With rats’ noses catching cases that human eyes might miss, life-saving medicine can get to more people in time to be effective. Also, according to APOPO, this type of screening can cost as little as 20 cents per sample, significantly reducing costs.

Currently, 38 TB-testing “Hero Rats” have screened more than 350,000 samples throughout Tanzania and Mozambique. Soon there may be more. This year, APOPO won an innovation grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to expand into areas of high-risk communities, such as prisons, shantytowns and factories.

TB can devastate economies, and inadequate diagnosis and treatment can endanger entire communities: One person with active TB can infect 10 to 15 additional people per year. Identifying and treating more active cases brings us closer to controlling and eliminating this terrible disease.

APOPO trainers are doing their part, starting work with their furry sidekicks almost as soon as they open their eyes. With incredible noses, these rats “have a huge impact on Tanzanian life,” said Fidelis John. “We are proud of Serafina.”

APOPO first began training giant pouched rats to detect land mines. Is there anything these rats can’t do? Follow APOPO on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about their work.