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Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling
|Motto||We train rats to save lives|
|Purpose||Provide detection rats technology to solve humanitarian challenges|
|Fields||Mine action, tuberculosis, research and development|
APOPO (an acronym for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling: "Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development" in English) is a registered Belgian non-governmental organisation which trains southern giant pouched rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. They call their trained rats HeroRATs.
Bart Weetjens, the founder, liked his pet rats when he was a young boy; as a student at the University of Antwerp, he applied the idea of using rodents for mine detection. He believed that rats, with their strong sense of smell and ability to be trained, could provide a better means to detect landmines. After consulting with Professor Ron Verhagen at the university, the Gambian pouched rat was determined to be the best candidate due to its longevity and African origin.
APOPO started as an R&D organization in Belgium, working with the support of research and government grants to develop the concept. Initial financial support came in 1997 from Belgian government foreign development aid funds. In 2000 it moved its training and headquarters to Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Morogoro, Tanzania, partnering with the Tanzanian People's Defence Force.
In 2003 APOPO was awarded a grant from the World Bank, which provided seed funding to research another application of the rats: tuberculosis (TB) detection at SUA. Bart Weetjens got a 3-year personal grant from Ashoka: Innovators for the Public in 2007. A TB detection program in Tanzania was launched in mid-2007 as a partnership with four government clinics. In 2008 proof of principle was provided in using trained rats to detect pulmonary tuberculosis in human sputum samples. In 2010 a research plan to evaluate the effectiveness and implementation of the rats in diagnosing tuberculosis was started. The same year APOPO developed an automated training cage in order to remove human bias. The rats' response is measured by optical sensors and the cage produces an automated click sound with food delivery.
Following results in Tanzania, the TB detection program was replicated in 2013 at a clinic in Maputo, Mozambique, at the veterinary department of the Eduardo Mondlane University. In 2014, in partnership with the Central Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory, the National Institute of Medical Research and the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia, a study undertaken to determine the accuracy of the rats in a population of presumptive TB patients. In 2014 five additional health centres joined the TB detection programme in Maputo. In 2016 APOPO covered almost 100% of all the suspect TB patients who go to clinics in the city, and the TB detection program in Tanzania had expanded to 28 clinics in three areas and processed around 800 samples per week.
After the first 11 rats were given accreditation according to International Mine Action Standards in 2004, beginning in 2006 machinery for ground preparation, manual deminers and the rats assisted with detection in long-running mine clearance operations in Mozambique. Tasked in 2008 as the sole operator to clear Gaza Province, the province was mine-free in 2012, one year ahead of schedule. In 2013 the government allowed APOPO to expand its operations in Maputo, Manica, Sofaka and Tete provinces. Mozambique was officially declared free of all landmines on 17 September 2015, APOPO assisted the government clear five provinces. 16 rats were maintained in the country at the request of the government in order to carry out residual (mop-up) tasks.
In Angola APOPO has worked for Norwegian People's Aid since 2012. From 2013-2015 up to 31 rats assisted demining by heavy machinery and people with metal detectors at two sites, Ngola Luige in Malanje and in Malele in Zaire province, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. 49 hectares were cleared. The 52 ha (130 acres) Malele site was cleared one year in advance. In 2016 rats assisted clearance at a site in Ndondele Mpasi, Zaire province.
In early 2014 the national Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) started demining a site, with the help of Norwegian Peoples Aid, using conventional mine clearance methods. Following a 6-month acclimatization and training period, 14 out of the 16 rats were accredited by CMAC in November 2015 to be used in mine clearance operations. Two Cambodian handlers spent six months in the training centre in Tanzania. By June 2016 the first minefield was cleared. In 2017 a visitor centre was opened in Siem Reap.
APOPO operational headquarters, including the training and research centers, are based at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro (Tanzania). It has field offices for its mine action programmes in Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia as of 2016. The TB programmes are operational in Tanzania and Mozambique, with offices based in Morogoro, Dar es Salaam and Maputo. It has also two fundraising offices in Switzerland and in the United States. There is also an administrative support office in Antwerp (Belgium).
An APOPO foundation was established in Geneva in 2015 to support APOPO's global activities with financial resources, networking among mine clearance and tuberculosis stakeholders, and increasing visibility. An office was set up in the United States to better access important institutional donors and public funding. The US office was registered as a 501(c)3 tax exempt non profit organization in 2015 which enables public and corporation donations to be tax deductible. In 2014 APOPO set up a TB Scientific Advisory Committee to provide credibility. APOPO also has a research & development centre.
As of June 2016, APOPO employed over 190 staff in the local operations and 14 international staff, and had 260 rats in various stages of breeding, detection training, research, or operations. Over 40 volunteers also work in support of APOPO's activities.
Scent detection training
Full training takes approximately nine months on average, and is followed by a series of accreditation tests. Once trained, they are able to work for approximately four to five years before they get retired. All of the rats are bred and trained in the Morogoro breeding and training centre. One rat costs approximately 6,000 euros to train.
Training starts with socialization at the age of 5–6 weeks and then through the principles of 'operant conditioning'. After two weeks they learn to associate a "click" sound with a food reward - banana or peanuts. Once they know that "click" means food the rats are ready to be trained on a target scent. According to the type of specialization a series of training stages are followed, each one building on the skill learned in the previous stage. The complexity of their tasks gradually increases until they have to do a final blind test. Rats that fail the test are retired and are cared for the rest of their life.
- First a click sound is established as a condition reinforcer associated with a food reward.
- Once the rat learns that the clicks mean food, it has to search for the target scent, TNT. The rat is offered a choice between various scents placed beneath 3 sniffer holes. By pausing its nose above the target scent, the click and food treat will teach the rat this was the correct answer.
- In the next stage rat must search for the target scent hidden in a sandbox. It must walk in lanes with a trainer and gets some banana after each correct indication.
- After this, the rat is trained in a field with deactivated landmines. It is first taught to detect surface laid mines on a small surface, and the training moves gradually to deeper mines in larger areas. There are 24 hectares of test minefields and over 1,500 deactivated landmines at SUA.
- In the final test the rat has to clear an area of 200 m2 (2,200 sq ft) in less than 20 minutes. It cannot miss any of the mines and can only give 2 false positive indications.
- If passed, it can be sent to a particular country: here it must undergo a 6-month acclimatization and training session in the new environment.
- Finally it must accredited by the national authorities in the country of operations: it must be tested locally to prove it is in line with the International Mine Action Standards.
TB detection rats are trained to detect tuberculosis in samples of sputum. The initial training steps are similar, but in this case after the rat is trained to find the right scent in three holes the number gradually increases until 10 samples are evaluated at a time. These rats must also pass a test before being used. The TB research and training facilities centre is hosted at SUA and houses a laboratory and four rat-training rooms.
When the southern giant pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) used by APOPO are flown in they must first be acclimatised to the specific country, and be accredited by the local national agency, which will take a number of months.
Rats are only a component of integrated demining operations. Metal detectors and mechanical demining machines are also still necessary. Before the rats can be used, the land must first be prepared with special heavy machinery to cut the brush to ground level. Paths must also be cleared by conventional metal detectors at every 2m intervals for the handlers to walk on.
The rats wear harnesses connected to a rope suspended between two handlers. Rats are led to search a demarcated zone of 10 x 20m (200 m2 [2,200 sq ft]) and indicate the scent of explosives usually by scratching at the ground. The points indicated by the rats are marked, and then followed up later by technicians using metal detectors; the mines which are found are then excavated by hand and destroyed.
According to the NGO the main advantage over conventional methods is speed. They point to past studies that show that less than 3 percent of landmine suspected land actually contains any landmines. Animals such as dogs or rats detect only explosives and ignore scrap metal such as old coins, nuts and bolts etc., thus they might be able to check areas of land faster than conventional methods. They claim that one rat can check 200 m2 (2,200 sq ft) in around 20 minutes. In Angola, however, from 2012 to 2016 49,625 m2 (534,160 sq ft) were cleared as part of a team including conventional equipment, indicating a 35,000% slower rate in the field.
The rats are indigenous to Sub-Saharan Africa, so are suited to tropical climates and could be resistant to many endemic diseases. Few resources are needed to train and raise a rat to adulthood and they have a lifespan of six to eight years. Furthermore, rats do not form bonds with specific trainers like dogs but rather are motivated to work for food, so trained rats can be transferred between handlers. In the minefields, the rats are too light to detonate a pressure-activated mine when walking over it. Their small size also means that the rats can be more easily transported to sites than dogs.
Criticisms and limitations
The value of using of giant pouched rats to clear significant amounts of mined areas is limited. Critics note that rats cannot search reliably in areas of thick vegetation and often search more erratically than humans, offering a lower level of assurance that the land is mine free. Additionally they can only work for short periods in the heat, limiting their output. Manual demining teams are still the globally preferred method of landmine clearance, and currently APOPO is the only organisation in the world to use giant rats.
Sputum samples that have already been conventionally tested are retested by the rats. The rats sniff a series of holes in a glass chamber, under which sputum samples are placed. When a rat detects TB, it indicates this by keeping its nose in the sample hole and/or scratching at the floor of the cage. The program began in Tanzania in 2007, double-checking samples from four government clinics, by 2016 some 1000 samples a week were sent by 24 clinics in and around Dar es Salaam and Morogoro. The rats have been screening samples from clinics in Mozambique since 2013. APOPO have a facility at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. In 2015 14 health centres in the city worked with it.
The key advantage of the rats is speed. Public clinics use microscopy to detect TB; this is slow and imprecise. In Mozambique only 50% of TB positive patients tested at clinics are actually identified, so the rats are used to double check the samples. According to the NGO, one trained rat can evaluate 40 samples in 7 minutes, which a laboratory technician can process in a day. The rats make it possible to mass-screen many samples. They work at low cost and a fast pace.
APOPO suggests it increased the detection of TB patients by over 40%.
In 2015 the rats screened more than 40,000 sputum samples, thereby identifying over 1,150 positive samples that were missed by microscopy.
APOPO assisted Maputo DOTS public health clinics increase TB detection rate by 48% and contributed to halting 3800 potential TB infections. Over 9166 presumptive TB patients evaluated by the rats in 2015, 666 missed by conventional methods were diagnosed.
In 2015 APOPO began a study with the support of the USAID, screening prisoners in Tanzanian and Mozambican jails for tuberculosis. This study aimed to convince decision makers of the rats' use.
In 2015 to 2016 more than 2,500 prisoners were to be tested for TB in Mozambique and Tanzania.
APOPO has been funded by the Belgian, Flemish, Norwegian and Liechtenstein Governments, the United Nations Development Programme, the US Department of State's National Institutes of Health, USAID, HDIF, the European Union, the Province of Antwerp, the World Bank, the UBS Optimus Foundation, Trafigura Group, JTIF, the Skoll Foundation, Only The Brave Foundation and the Postcode Lotteries from Sweden, The UK and Holland. It also receives money from private donors and public fundraising campaigns. . Myapopo is a sponsorship program aimed at raising fund among the public through a personalized adoption system. Sponsors receive regular updates on their rat's daily activities through the stages of its life to retirement and can also choose its name.
Princess Astrid of Belgium joined the Board in 2009 as Honorary President. In 2011 she visited the headquarters in Tanzania and the de-mining operations in Mozambique. American actress Minae Noji, the first APOPO ambassador, appears in a video on their YouTube channel.
- 2016 : ranked 16th in the Global Geneva Top 500 NGOs.
- 2015 : ranked 24th in the Global Geneva Top 500 NGOs.
- 2013 : ranked 11th on the 'Top 100 NGO's' Global Journal's list. The organization is also featured in the top three lists for the best NGOs in terms of innovation and in the peace-building sector.
- 2013 : received the first level of "C2E" (committed to excellence) accreditation from the European Foundation for Quality Management.
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