With Africa having a big share of the global malaria burden, technologists are developing new, cost-effective ways to detect the disease – minus the needle.
A needle, blood drawn and waiting time are the three aspects of a traditional malaria test.
In Kampala, Uganda, 24-year-old Brian Gitta has created a device that eliminates all of the above, in a first for malaria testing.
Matibabu, meaning ‘treatment’ in Swahili, tests malaria without drawing blood and can deliver results instantly.
The device, clipped on to a patient’s finger, beams a red light, and the results are available within a minute on a mobile phone linked to the device.
Growing up, Gitta had a passion for computers and went on to pursue a degree in computer science at the University of Makerere in Kampala.
Little did he know his eagerness and passion for tech would lead him to the medical field.
“I’m not one who grew up saying I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. I mean I’m not a doctor but I’m glad I can make a change in the medical realm from there,” Gitta tells FORBES AFRICA.
Gitta, who is often in and out of hospitals, now runs Matibabu, a company that takes its name from the device he created. He runs it with a team of six full-time staff. Although he is the CEO and founder of Matibabu, he prefers to be called a team leader.
It all started six years ago. In his first year at university, Gitta got together with his fellow students to change the way malaria was diagnosed. The prevalence of malaria continues to be high in Africa, rated as a top killer.
“I remember the first year when we started it, a lot of people were excited about what we were doing,” Gitta says.
Their project got them accolades such as the UN Women’s Empowerment Award in 2013.
“I think what we are doing has a lot of potential and we can definitely do something about this.”
The team decided to turn the project into a company with a social objective. But nothing prepared them for what was to come.
“As a bunch of people that didn’t know how to run a company, neither did we know how to do anything in terms of management; we actually had to learn on site, so we made a lot of mistakes in the beginning,” says Gitta.
But the more word got out about the company, the more support Gitta and his team received.
They got to learn more about strategic solutions, and managing development processes and the expectations of partners.
The prestigious 2018 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation they won in Kenya in June, have now helped them map the product for the world.
Gitta won prize money of $33,000. He will also receive support, funding, mentoring and business training from the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom.
In 2016, he was on an MTV Base panel discussion with billionaire Bill Gates to share his views on the future of technology, innovation and development in Africa, with a group of African youth.
Gitta aims to create a low-cost malaria-testing device for medical institutions. Currently, the price is set at $100, but he hopes to lower the cost so it’s more accessible.
Gitta, himself once a victim to malaria, was frustrated with the healthcare system in Uganda. Blood tests had failed to diagnose his condition. He says this is one of the common problems malaria patients face. Another is people would rather self-diagnose than seek medical help.
“There’s a lot of self-medication because people tend to treat every fever as malaria and that creates additional strain…,” says Gitta.
But he believes with Matibabu, these issues may be eliminated.
Far from Kampala, in the South African capital of Pretoria, Professor Leo Braack at the University of Pretoria has been studying malaria for over five years.
“The new device developed by Gitta and his colleagues suggests multiple potential benefits not just for patients, [but] especially small children intimidated by the current need for a drop of blood,” says Braack.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), children under the age of five are at a high risk of malaria because they are more susceptible to infection, illness and death.
Braack believes this device could be the first of its kind in the world. However, that may provide a challenge for Matibabu to enter the market.
“The device still has a way to go before it will be widely accepted within the medical and scientific communities, and ultimately it will depend on cost-effectiveness, and particularly how accurate and sensitive the diagnosis is,” he says.
“If the device has a margin of error, it is better that it has false-positives than false-negatives. It is better to treat a false-positive person than to ignore a false-negative person who may go on to get seriously ill.
“The ideal is to get the device to reach as close to 100% accuracy and sensitivity, [it’s] very difficult to reach.”
Despite the immense strides taken in eradicating malaria, one of the biggest challenges is the mosquito’s resistance to insecticides and drugs.
Technology has introduced short-term solutions to combat outdoor mosquitoes.
Like Gitta, Dr Vinet Coetzee, a lecturer from the University of Pretoria, has been on the quest to identify affordable, non-invasive ways to detect malaria. Her method was tested in Nigeria on children.
“The device uses sensitive skin color measurements in the palm of the hand coupled with Artificial Intelligence to accurately detect whether a person has malaria or not,” says Coetzee.
According to Coetzee, sensitivity is the ability of the method to correctly identify people who have the disease. In this case, WHO recommends a sensitivity of 95%.
The University of Pretoria has filed a provisional patent for this method and Coetzee and her team are currently working on improving the device and its overall accuracy.
She was selected as a Next Einstein Forum fellow and member of the World Economic Forum Young Scientist Community for her work on the bloodless malaria detection device.
Dr Taneshka Kruger, who has been studying malaria since 2012, also believes technology can aid in the fight against malaria. Her focus in malaria research is malaria education and awareness, and public health, looking into new and modern ways to inform communities in both malaria-endemic and non-malaria areas through the use of social media and mobile apps.
“In order for malaria elimination to be achieved in sub-Saharan Africa and globally, new and innovative methods and strategies need to be developed that focus on all aspects of the disease,” she tells us.
“The institute [University of Pretoria], in collaboration with Travel with Flair, also developed the ‘Malaria Buddy’ app to inform mainly tourists about malaria. The app is continuously expanding with the aim to become a one-stop malaria information app,” she adds.
WHO is tracking the E2020 initiative in 21 countries identified as having the potential to eliminate the disease by the year 2020. Six of them are African – Algeria, Botswana, Cape Verde, Comoros, South Africa and Swaziland.
The African region carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden.
In 2016, the region was home to 90% of malaria cases and 91% of malaria deaths. Therefore, a lot more effort and focus to eradicate malaria is necessary.
Despite only being in the field for a few years, Gitta is positive that with these technological enhancements, the fight against malaria will surely end.
“I think the strides toward elimination are happening although it will take a bit of time. But we just want to be a part of the journey as a whole,” says Gitta.
“I think the opportunity has been humungous and I don’t look at age as a definition of how to be an entrepreneur and that’s what makes this generation a big difference,” he says.
Hopefully, the new generation of tech tools they develop will also offer a big difference to malaria cure.