Onesia’s sister suffered from tuberculosis and she vowed to do all that she could to try and stop TB.
“My name is Onesia and I am 26 years old. I have been studying ways to prevent and treat TB since my sister suffered from it two years ago. It is an insidious and dangerous disease that creeps up and is difficult to diagnose. She began with a cough that got worse until she became weak and was coughing up blood. Like many Mozambicans with limited resources she waited until it was almost too late because she couldn’t afford to get time off work and it was difficult for her to leave the children and spend hours waiting in a clinic to get tested.
The clinics do their best but they are often overburdened with patients and frequently don’t have the time or technology to test people properly. Although they use conventional testing methods such as microscopy, depending on their resources, the equipment may not be up to scratch, a skilled technician may be away from work or their may be technical problems such as power or water cuts, which greatly affect testing rates and qualities. My sister was lucky because she tested positive and was placed on treatment immediately. However because of those problems many people are given an all clear when in fact they are TB positive, and that’s where the rats come in.
APOPO’s research lab collects samples that have already been tested by the clinics and brings them here to our laboratory where the rats re-test them. They are given ten samples at one time in a row under the cage and they run up and down sniffing them through holes to see if they contain TB. When they smell it, they hold their noses over the sample for 3 seconds and this counts as a TB positive. Our lab technicians then confirm the rat-positive samples using WHO endorsed methods like culture and LED microscopy. This means that the APOPO lab has time to properly test only a few targeted samples from the whole batch whereas the DOT clinics have to test every single one. That is why we are so efficient and finding that 44% of DOT clinic negatives are actually TB positives.
We then notify the clinic on confirmed cases of TB and they reach out to the patient for treatment. It is a partnership that works well for both us and the Mozambican Ministry of Health. Ultimately it is the people of Mozambique who benefit most. The program is amazing and it really needs to expand because it is making such a difference. I have been with APOPO for 3 years now and before this I was an animal handler in a veterinary surgery, so I don’t mind the rats at all.
Many of my family were initially skeptical and scared of them – they thought rats were stupid, dirty things. In fact they are tame, very clever and extremely impressive to see work. They are so fast and effective and all of them have personalities. I have a favorite called Gallina, which is a joke because it means ‘hen’ in Portuguese. She gets on with her job quietly and efficiently, and she doesn’t make a fuss about anything.
I was originally trained by a Tanzanian called Fidelis who is a Rat Training Coordinator at our APOPO research lab in Tanzania. He came here before the new lab was opened and trained us all. It was very exciting for us and the Veterinary University of Maputo who are our partners here and have really supported us. They also help with rat health, making sure than they are looked after well and receive all the care they need.
When the lab opened, we had a big celebration and it was opened by the University Eduardo Mondlane Rector, Prof. Orlando António Quilambo. The rats got straight to work and so far the lab is very successful beyond what we had hoped for and is really making a difference to positive TB diagnoses in Maputo.”