August 21, 2007
BY FRONTLINE/World Editors
An Apopo trainer handles one of the rodent recruits at Weetjens' lab in Tanzania.
Perhaps you were one of our viewers amazed to witness the abilities and intelligence of the rats featured in our story Hero Rats in Tanzania. We also heard from some of you who keep rats as pets and who were delighted to see their beloved creatures being put to good use. Either way, the story of the rats trained to uncover land mines has been one of the most popular videos on our Web site this summer, with comments flooding in after the June 27th broadcast.
"Finding a mine with a little rat who seems to enjoy his work (or at least his treat!) is genius," wrote one viewer from Bellingham, Washington. "It's amazing what one person can do when they follow their passion, then reach out to help others on a global scale."
Bart Weetjens, the social entrepreneur responsible for the concept, was also a big hit at our social entrepreneur film festival held in San Francisco earlier this summer, where we celebrated the innovative people and ideas behind the series. Since then, Weetjens has kept in touch by email and we wanted to share the latest news from him about his work in Africa.
Apopo founder, Bart Weetjens (left) talks with FRONTLINE/World reporter Alexis Bloom.
"The first few days after the broadcasting, we had more then 3,000 visits to the Hero Rats Web site, which is fantastic," wrote Weetjens.
The busy Belgian is now working to raise funds to extend the program to Angola, which is still suffering the legacy of a devastating civil war.
Many viewers asked for an update on how the rats are being used to detect tuberculosis, a curable disease that can ravage a population if it goes undetected.
Weetjens found that rats can sniff out TB in human sputum samples. He is now using his rats to re-test samples from health centers, and diagnose cases of TB that the centers' microscopes missed. Weetjen's staff then tracks down and notifies the patients by mobile phone.
"These people can be traced and treated early," said Weetjens, "rather then coming back to the health centers after several months with evolved cases of TB that are more difficult to treat. Alternatively, they keep walking around untreated, infecting others at a ratio of 10 to 15 people a year. If the number of saved lives is the measure of impact, the TB rats have a bright future!" he told us.
Weetjens' supersniffing rats live several years longer than their counterparts in the wild.
Some of you also expressed concern about the treatment of the rats and the ethics around using them to find mines as well as the animals' exposure to TB. We asked Weetjens about this and he told us that the rats are not susceptible to TB, and had this to say about the treatment of the rats: "We apply the strictest standards (space, toys, etc.) for laboratory animals, and compared to wild giant pouched rats that survive only 2 to 3 years in nature, our animals have a luxury life of up to 8 years."
For those inspired by the positive work of Weetjens and his rats, check out the other stories in our social entrepreneur series. From Nepal to Paraguay to South Africa and India, the series will introduce you to an impressive array of leaders making social change through innovation. The series was funded by the Skoll Foundation and we plan to bring you more of these stories in the future.
In other news, you can now download a growing selection of our video stories, including some from our Social Entrepreneurs series, by subscribing to the FRONTLINE/World podcast. Our videos are already creating some buzz and look crisp and clear on the new iPhones. Last week, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik took note of our growing popularity among iPod users when she wrote about our recent Ghana baseball story. Garchik said she found it an "engaging 12-minute segment" about efforts to promote America's national pastime in Africa.
Thanks for watching (whatever your preferred device)!
Charlotte Buchen for the FRONTLINE/World team