About challenging one’s perceptions

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Oct 26, 2013 in Rat News | Subscribe

I recently heard a great example of how growing up in a multicultural environment can lead to tremendous rewards, and how a predominately despised species can become heroes.

A boy named Bart Weetjens grew up in Belgium, having African students living with the family consistently. He became fascinated with Africa.

Weetjens became a successful industrial engineer. He worked in product development focused on detection technologies for developing countries.

As he worked in the industry he was dissatisfied contributing to material society. So he eventually quit his job to focus on what he saw as a real world problem — land mines.

The presence of land mines all over the world is an issue the United Nations, governments and other world organizations are trying to address.

An estimated 140 million Africans live in countries where there is a high risk of injury from land mines. Land mines are found throughout Africa, in villages, towns and fields, around roads, wells, schools and health clinics.

The mines affect water safety, agricultural development, public health and the emotional state of Africans, while also killing, injuring and disabling over 12,000 African people each year.

Metal detectors are unreliable because the sub-Saharan soils in Africa contain iron.

Weetjens also happened to be fascinated with rats. As a child he had pet rats, gerbils, mice, hamsters, squirrels, etc., even bred and sold them to pet shops.

He came up with the idea of training rats to detect land mines and later, to screen for tuberculosis.

Weetjens said he chose rats because they are highly social creatures (contrary to what most people think).

Rats, apparently, have been used since the 1950s in all kinds of experiments. They are extremely sensitive to smell and have more genetic material allocated to olfaction than any other mammal species.

“Rats also have the mechanisms to map all these smells and to communicate about it,” Weetjens says.

Weetjens founded APOPO, a Belgian-African nongovernmental organization that trains rats to be the new mine-detection tool.

The rats are tested and accredited according to international mine action standards just like dogs, with one slight difference. Rats can be trained at one-fifth of the price of training a mining dog. Rats are also quicker at detection and less likely to set off a land mine because of their small size.

African people are trained to work in teams with the rats. Some have progressed from working with fully trained rats to learning to train the baby rats. They are proud to have a skill and become less dependent on foreign aid.

These teams have demonstrated that they are able to bring the cost per square meter of detecting mines down by up to 60 percent.
Weetjens realized rats can also be used to diagnose tuberculosis, by detecting the volotiles exuding from the patients, just as they do from explosives.

About 6,000 people died last year from walking on a land mine. But worldwide last year almost 1.9 million died from TB as a first cause of infection.

The studies with TB have been very successful.

The potential applications are extensive … detection of environmental pollutants in soils, detection of illicit goods in containers …

The first prototype of a rat backpack with a camera is being studied to go under rubble to detect victims after an earthquake.

HeroRATs is a public campaign to raise awareness about APOPO’s work. APOPO’s mission is to train and disseminate sniffer rats to save human lives by detecting land mines and disease.

Weetjans has some good advice: “Keep on challenging your perception about the resources surrounding you, whether environmental, technilogical, animal or human and learn to respectfully harmonize with them in order to foster a sustainable world.”

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