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Inventors of mobile app that tests for malaria win E4Impact award

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One of the most dreaded parts that precedes a malaria diagnosis is the prick of the needle.

It is a nightmare millions of people would rather forego when they visit a health facility to get tested for the disease that kills tens of thousands of Kenyans a year.

A group of students from Makerere University gave thought to this issue and have figured out a way to stop the pain, and make money while at it.

The inventors have developed a mobile application that can test for malaria without pricking the body, creating what could be a game changer in the diagnosis business.

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No blood

Their device, known as Matibabu, allows doctors to determine whether or not one has malaria without drawing blood. What one needs to do is just insert a finger into the device for scanning, and in less than 90 seconds, they will know if they need to buy malaria drugs or not. The invention does not just take away the pain of the prick, but may also save the continent billions of shillings every year used to buy needles the attendant machines used to diagnose malaria.

For their efforts, the inventors were crowned this year’s winners of the E4Impact Challenge, a pitching event in which East African innovators are given the chance to present their business project to a jury of investors, business experts and facilitators. Josiah Kavuma and one of his colleagues, Shafik Sekitto, won the hearts of the jury at the competition held at Tangaza University last month and walked away with the Sh1 million prize.

The competition organised by Tangaza University College and run by e4Impact Foundation, Tangaza University College and Universita Cattolica Del Sacro Cuore in partnership with Business Beat, is now in its sixth edition. According to the inventors, early diagnosis of malaria is key to its treatment, but this is sometimes hampered by the distances between medical centres in rural and remote areas. Brian Gitta came up with the idea after he fell sick and had to endure the same painful and slow process as millions of people the world over. As he waited for the results from the blood sample he had given, an idea struck him.

“It was a very long and painful process and this inspired us to come up with the non-invasive malaria diagnosis,” Mr Kavuma told Business Beat. The team began to brainstorm.

“We tried to find a way mobile technology could solve this problem,” Kavuma added.

And in 2013, Matibabu was born.

“Matibabu is a phone application that diagnoses for malaria without pricking the body and is attached to a customised device,” Kavuma said.

The application works by connecting a custom piece of hardware called a matiscope to a smartphone. Red light from the hardware device, which was created by the team, is absorbed after one presses a fingertip on it. After the light reaches the red blood cells, their state is determined to detect if one has malaria or not. The results are displayed on the smartphone. The application, which is currently available in Windows phones, sends the results to the user’s drive for medical record-keeping and to allow the details to be shared with doctors.

But as with other inventions, Matibabu has not had an easy ride. Kavuma said one of the biggest challenges was developing the hardware device. Finding the light sensors was difficult because the team was looking for something very specific.

Matibabu will be of especially great relief to children below the age of five, who are particularly susceptible to malaria, and those who live in remote areas.

The statistics Kavuma said his team’s main mission is to use technology to save lives. Their invention has won the support of international donors, who have been helping them improve their product. 

More than 214 million people are diagnosed with malaria every year. Further, the number of people who contract the disease in a month is 17.8 million, which translates to 77,536 people per hour. Out of the 438,000 malaria deaths recorded in 2015, 69 per cent were children aged under five. In sub-Saharan Africa, malaria is more rampant than in other parts of the world, with 89 per cent of malaria patients and 91 per cent of deaths caused by malaria. 

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Article by Mumbi Kinyua

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