Pandora Report 8.17.14

Another 12 hours at Dulles Airport on Friday and, fortunately, no new travel alerts. This week we look at TB detecting rats, an experimental Chikungunya vaccine, and the latest from West Africa.

Giant Rats Trained to Sniff Out Tuberculosis in Africa

APOPO, the Belgian nonprofit organization known for using rats to sniff out land mines, has been training the African giant pouched rat to detect tuberculosis since 2008 in Tanzania and 2013 in Mozambique. The trained rats are used in medical centers in Dar es Salaam and Maputo to double check potential TB samples. The rats are unable to differentiate between standard and drug-resistant strains of the disease however, the cost of training and maintenance of the rats is significantly cheaper than the new GeneXpert rapid diagnostic tests.

National Geographic—“‘What the rats are trained to do is associate the smell of TB with a reward, so it’s what they call operative conditioning,’ [Emilio] Valverde [manager of the APOPO Mozambique TM Program] said.

It is the same principle applied to detecting land mines, only the rats are trained to recognize the scent of specific molecules that reflect the presence of the tuberculosis germ—not the explosive vapor associated with land mines.”

Experimental Chikungunya Vaccine Shows Promise

Chikungunya, of course, is one of the diseases included in the CDC’s travel alerts, and this week we learned of a promising vaccine for the disease that causes fever and intensely painful and severe arthritis. After the vaccine’s first human trials, the next step is to test in more people and more age groups, including populations where the virus is endemic. The trial leader said that it could be more than five years before a finished vaccine could be offered to the public.

CBS News—“‘This vaccine was safe and well-tolerated, and we believe that this vaccine makes a type of antibody that is effective against chikungunya,’ said trial leader Dr. Julie Ledgerwood, chief of the clinical trials program at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.”

WHO: Ebola Outbreak Vastly Underestimated

The news from West Africa seems to be getting worse and worse. Earlier in the week there was good news when a new quarantine center opened in Liberia. Then two days later, that same center was destroyed and looted. All of this comes, too, when the World Health Organization has said there is evidence that numbers of cases and deaths are far lower than the actual numbers and MSF has said that the outbreak will take at least six months to get under control.

Al Jazeera—“‘Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak,’ the organization said.

‘WHO is coordinating a massive scaling up of the international response, marshaling support from individual countries, disease control agencies, agencies within the United Nations system, and others.’”

Image Credit: James Pursey, APOPO

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