Ugandan invention revolutionises malaria testing

It took several days, and several blood tests, before someone figured out what was wrong with Brian Gitta. The Ugandan engineer, now 25, had malaria.

The disease is common in Uganda, and affects tens of millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa, but obtaining a diagnosis can be expensive and time-consuming. Blood samples usually have to be sent to laboratories for examination under a microscope, and the blood can only be drawn by medical professionals.

By the time doctors can confirm that a patient is indeed suffering from the mosquito-borne disease, it might be too late.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too late for Gitta, who recovered just fine. But he was convinced that diagnosing malaria should be easier — and he was determined to find a solution.

“We have all had malaria, it’s such a common problem. So based on that experience we thought how can we tackle the problem of diagnostics differently?” he said.

Gitta and his colleagues at Makerere University in Kampala, where they studied, became consumed with the problem. They delved deep into their textbooks; taught themselves cutting-edge medical science from academic journals; and held long brainstorming sessions where they batted around ideas.

Inspiration, when it struck, came not from the academic world, but from the app store. “I remember Shazam [the music identification app] had just come out, you just put on a few seconds of a song and you get a result,” recalled Shafik Sekitto, who worked closely with Gitta. “We thought: can we not do something like that for malaria?”

They could. They invented a device called Matibabu (the Swahili word for treatment), which promises to revolutionise how malaria is diagnosed. It scans your fingertip with a red beam, and can detect any changes to colour, shape and concentration of red blood cells, all key malaria indicators. The result is available within one minute, and can be sent directly to a smartphone. Because it makes diagnosis so easy, and so fast, it has the potential to save lives.

Just like Shazam, but for malaria.

So far, trials show that Matibabu has around 80% accuracy when it comes to accurately diagnosing malaria. But Gitta, Sekitto and their team have been refining the technology which underpins it, and are confident that new clinical trials will demonstrate 90%-plus accuracy — on a par with microscopic examinations, the current gold standard when it comes to malaria testing.

The Matibabu team’s efforts to take their product to market received an enormous boost last week when they won the prestigious Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, which comes with a prize of £25 000.

“We are very proud of this year’s winner. It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development — in this case by improving healthcare. Matibabu is simply a game changer,” said judge Rebecca Enonchong.

Gitta says he is delighted with the award, but doesn’t have time to celebrate. “We have yet to celebrate…the media attention is good and we are getting lots of interest in partnering with us. Before we celebrate we have to get something concrete from all these partnerships.”

The Matibabu team plans to use the prize money to fund the next round of clinical trials, which will involve tests on 380 patients; and to help with the difficult process of obtaining regulatory approval for the product. Although the business plan is still being finessed, Gitta said that the device will likely sell for around $100 per unit when it is ready for market.

“It’s a huge milestone, and a huge step towards commercialisation of this product,” said Shafik.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison, The Continent
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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