After experiencing several bouts of malaria, which almost cost him his university education, Brian Gita, 26, took the decision to use technology to help him and others by developing a smartphone app that can diagnose malaria without a blood test.
Gita, a computer science graduate from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, is one of a group of four computer scientists who created the app, known as Matibabu (Swahili word for treatment).
He said the app has so far proved to be 80 percent accurate in diagnosing malaria and was simple to use, producing a diagnosis result within one to two minutes.
The app went on to win the prestigious top prize for engineering innovation recently from the Royal Academy of Engineering at an event held in Nairobi, along with a cash prize of $32,000.
Additional funds of $65,000 from China's Ministry of Science and Technology were also granted this year to Gita for his team to develop the app further to its full potential.
"We hope by the time we have completed our pilot trials, the app can have an effectiveness rate of 99 percent. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the rate to be at least 85 percent," said Gita. Currently, his team is working with 14 hospitals in Uganda and a few in Kenya, and the app has diagnosed more than 300 people.
"Chinese funds will go a long way [toward our research]. If we can reach the target of 2 million people, then we are winning the war against Malaria. We believe we can [do it]," said Gita.
According to China's Ambassador to Kenya Sun Baohong, part of the Chinese funding to Africa will involve science and technology.
"China will definitely fund good research ideas outside its borders. We are the biggest donor to Africa and its largest trading partner," said the Chinese ambassador who was appointed to her post only in June. "Science is vital to Africa's development. I cannot really tell you the amount, but surely it will run to hundreds of millions [of dollars] worth of non-payable grants." She added that science and technology is an important part of the China's Belt and Road Initiative.
The app uses a custom-made piece of hardware called matiscope. It consists of a red light-emitting diode and a light sensor which can pierce beyond the skin to reach the red blood cells. After a person has placed his finger into the matiscope device, the diagnostic results can be seen via a smartphone connected to the device within two minutes.
Laboratory tests usually take about three hours on average. "You do not need to draw blood and it is painless," said Gita, who said the app is currently the leader of its kind worldwide.
"We are in the final phase of testing the kit, and are also looking at how to improve on accuracy levels [in collaboration] with the Mulago National Referral Hospital in Uganda. We will soon be commercializing our kit during a scheduled roll out," said Morris Artwine, one of the co-founders of the app. "Matibabu also saves time, as consistent power blackouts [in the country] affect the accuracy of diagnostic results."
He confirmed that his group is in close collaborative discussions with several hospitals and health facilities across Africa, so that it can reach out to as many people as possible.
While specific costs are still to be determined, Gita said that the app and device should retail for less than $10 when it enters the mainstream market.
The latest WHO malaria report shows that there were an estimated 216 million cases of malaria in 91 countries and regions worldwide in 2016, up from 211 million cases in the preceding year. The estimated global tally of malaria deaths reached 445,000 in 2016 compared to 446,000 the previous year.
While the rate of new cases of malaria had fallen overall, the trend has levelled off and even reversed in some regions since 2014. Malaria mortality rates followed a similar pattern. The report said that an estimated 90 percent of all these malaria cases and deaths worldwide continue to emanate from Africa. Fifteen countries in the world, 14 of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa, carry 80 percent of the global malaria burden.
National-level surveys in Africa show that only about 34 percent of children with a fever are taken to medical service providers in the public health sector.
Commenting on the findings of the report, Pedro Alonso, Director of the WHO Global Malaria Program, said, "We hope this report serves as a wake-up call for the global health community. Meeting the global malaria targets will only be possible through greater investment and expanded coverage of core tools that prevent, diagnose and treat malaria. Robust financing for the research and development of the new tools is equally critical."
The WHO Global Technical Strategy for Malaria 2016-30 calls for reductions of at least 40 percent in malaria case incidence and mortality rates by the year 2020.
"The WHO ranked Uganda as the country with the highest malaria cases at 10.3 million per year. We hope our kit will go along the way toward addressing this issue," said Artwine. The launch of Matibabu later in the year is expected to take place in all of the six East Africa Community countries. Officials from China's Ministry of Science and Technology are expected to be at the events. Once launched, it will be fully commercialized in 2019.
Kenya's Health Cabinet Secretary (Minister) Cecily Kariuki welcomed the innovation in the health sector.
"Current techniques used in testing malaria are still somewhat outdated and time consuming. In the process, many people lose their lives before they can receive a diagnosis. Sometimes misdiagnosis is also a concern," she said. "We do welcome this app [Matibabu] for use next year once it is fully operational." She added that East Africa has been badly hit by malaria and the need to forge partnerships to deal with the disease, including with China, is vital. "No country can go it alone," she said.
Artwine predicts that in the next two years, the app will also gain a presence in Southeast Asia where malaria remains a serious problem.
(Reporting from Uganda)
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