In his 21 years Brian Gitta has had malaria too many times to count. Because of the numerous blood tests he’s undergone, he became afraid of needles. And so he and three other computer science students worked hard to develop a mobile phone app that detects malaria – without the use of needles.
By Amy Fallon, IPS
“I was two or three years old when I first contracted it,” says Gitta, who is studying computer science at Makerere University in Kampala.
“It’s very unusual to meet people in Uganda who haven’t had malaria. If you go to a clinic, you might find that 90 percent of patients have it.”
Uganda’s biggest killer
Annually an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Ugandans die from the tropical disease, which is transmitted to humans by mosquitos carrying the malaria parasite. That makes it the country’s biggest killer, according to the NGO Malaria Consortium Uganda. Experts say nearly half (about 42 percent) of Uganda’s 34.5 million people are host to the malaria parasite, although they do not display any signs of being ill.
Gitta’s most recent bout of malaria, just before Christmas in 2012, was severe. He contracted brucellosis, an infectious disease contracted by the consumption of unsterilised milk or meat, and typhoid at the same time and had to be hospitalised for a month.
“I had to undergo lots of blood tests. I was in lots of pain and the doctor’s queue was long,” he says.
Gitta was bedridden during his convalescence, and during that time he had a light bulb moment. He imagined a “mobile medical centre” that offered a quicker and pain-free diagnosis without needles and pricks. Gitta envisaged using a small device for this – but it was a big vision.
But as soon as he recovered he set to work on realising it.
Quick and easy wins
And this July in St Petersburg, Russia, Gitta, Joshua Businge, Simon Lubambo and Josiah Kavuma, known as team Code 8, were announced the winners of the inaugural Women’s Empowerment Award at Microsoft’s global student software competition, Imagine Cup. The all-male group was recognised for their development of an application that they call Matibabu, Swahili for medical centre.
In Uganda, malaria is diagnosed via either the microscopic examination of blood films or a rapid diagnostic test.
Future is bright
Matibabu uses a custom-made portable device called a matiscope, which is connected to a smartphone, to do a rapid diagnostic test. The user’s finger is inserted into the matiscope, and the application uses a red light to penetrate the skin and detect the red blood cells.
“It’s been shown that infected red blood cells have a different physical, chemical and biomedical structure from a normal red blood cell, hence [we] used light-scattering technology to determine the scatter patterns of both normal and infected cells,” said Kavuma.
“Through the difference in the patterns, the app is able to diagnose for malaria without a blood sample.”
The hardware has a light-emitting diode and a light sensor, and it transmits the test results to the user’s phone for processing.
The students hope their device will be on the market within two years and say the application will be free to download. The hardware may cost between 20 and 35 dollars. The young developers concede that this is a lot of money for many Ugandans. But costs should decrease in time.
Gitta hopes other diseases can be diagnosed in a similar way. “The future is bright and anything can happen…,” he says. “Let’s watch out for the next great thing.”