Tuesday June 25, 2019

Brian Gitta: A Malaria Test That Would Not Need Blood Samples

The new malaria test kit works by shining a red beam of light onto a finger

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A health service worker takes a blood sample for a malaria test in Dajabon, Dominican Republic, on the border with Haiti, Oct. 6, 2009. A test that doesn't require a needle or blood has won the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation
A health service worker takes a blood sample for a malaria test in Dajabon, Dominican Republic, on the border with Haiti, Oct. 6, 2009. A test that doesn't require a needle or blood has won the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, VOA

Languishing with fever and frustrated by delays in diagnosing his illness, Brian Gitta came up with a bright idea: a malaria test that would not need blood samples or specialized laboratory technicians.

That inspiration has won the 25-year-old Ugandan computer scientist a prestigious engineering prize for a noninvasive malaria test kit that he hopes will be widely used across Africa.

For developing the reusable test kit known as Matibabu, Gitta this month was awarded the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. The award by the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britain comes with $32,940.

Malaria is the biggest killer in Africa, and the sub-Saharan region accounts for about 80 percent of the world’s malaria cases and deaths. Cases rose to 216 million in 2016, up from 211 million cases in 2015, according to the latest World Malaria Report, released late last year. Malaria deaths fell by 1,000, to 445,000.

The mosquito-borne disease is a challenge to prevent, with increasing resistance reported to both drugs and insecticides.

No needles

The new malaria test kit works by shining a red beam of light onto a finger to detect changes in the shape, color and concentration of red blood cells, all of which are affected by malaria. The results are sent within a minute to a computer or mobile phone linked to the device.

A Portugal-based firm has been contracted to produce the components for Matibabu, the Swahili word for “treatment.”

“It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development, in this case by improving health care,” Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation judge, said in a statement. “Matibabu is simply a game changer.”

A woman carrying a baby holds a treated mosquito net during a malaria prevention action at Ajah in Eti Osa East district of Lagos, Nigeria, April 21, 2016.
A woman carrying a baby holds a treated mosquito net during a malaria prevention action at Ajah in Eti Osa East district of Lagos, Nigeria, April 21, 2016. VOA

Gitta and five colleagues, all trained in computer science or engineering, developed an affordable, bloodless test that does not need a specialist to operate. The new test will be suitable for use in Africa’s rural areas, where most cases of malaria occur, because it will not depend on sending blood samples to a distant laboratory.

Others are also working to fill the need for quicker, easier malaria tests. There are more than 200 rapid diagnostic test products for malaria on the market, according to the WHO.

80 percent accurate now

The fifth-generation prototype of Matibabu, with an accuracy rate of 80 percent, is still a work in process. Gitta and his group aim to refine the device until it achieves an accuracy rate exceeding 90 percent.

Matibabu has yet to be formally subjected to all the necessary clinical trials under Ugandan safety and ethics regulations.

“It excites me as a clinician,” said Medard Bitekyerezo, a Ugandan physician who chairs the National Drug Authority. “I think the National Drug Authority will approve it.”

The government should invest in the project so that its developers don’t struggle financially, he added. The unit cost of the latest prototype is about $100.

Despite the optimism, Gitta has found a hurdle he didn’t anticipate: Some patients are skeptical of unfamiliar technology.

“The doctors will tell you that some people will not leave the hospital until their children have been pricked, and until they have been given anti-malaria drugs and painkillers, even if the kid is not sick,” he said.

Also read: From Radio Signals A Pill Could Tell About Gut Health And Help Doctors

“We think we are developing for hospitals first, so that people can first get attached to the brand, and gain the trust of patients over time.” (VOA)

Next Story

Porous Border Could Hinder Efforts to Control the Outbreak of Ebola

Eastern Congo has battled the Ebola outbreak since last August

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Ebola, Congo, Uganda
People coming from Congo have their temperature measured to screen for symptoms of Ebola, at the Mpondwe border crossing with Congo, in western Uganda, June 14, 2019. VOA

Several well-trodden paths crisscross this lush area where people walk between Congo and Uganda to visit nearby family and friends and go to the busy markets.

The problem is that the pedestrians may unknowingly be carrying the deadly Ebola virus, and hindering efforts to control the current outbreak in eastern Congo, which has killed more than 1,400 people.

The busy border post is open 12 hours a day from 7 a.m., but after dark people walk along the “panyas,” or “mouse paths,” as the narrow dirt trails are known in the local Kiswahili language.

The footpaths show the close kinship between the two countries, where most people have relatives on both sides of the border. But as Ebola rages they are a source of worry for health workers and local authorities trying to prevent any further cross-border contamination. Eastern Congo has battled the Ebola outbreak since last August and last week the disease spread to Uganda, where two people died of the hemorrhagic fever.

Ebola, Congo, Uganda
The problem is that the pedestrians may unknowingly be carrying the deadly Ebola virus. Pixabay

“This border is very porous,” said James Mwanga, a Ugandan police officer in charge of the Mpondwe border post. “You will not know who has passed if the person went through the unofficial border posts, in most cases. Now there is anxiety and so on. We have heightened our alertness.”

The Ebola deaths in Uganda happened after a family of Congolese-Ugandans traveled to Congo to care for a family elder suffering from the disease.

Authorities believe members of that family, including a 5-year-old boy and his 50-year-old grandmother who have since died of Ebola , took a footpath back into Uganda. In doing so, they may have exposed many Ugandans to the viral disease.

The current outbreak in eastern Congo has become the second worst, after the West Africa epidemic of 2014-2016 in which more than 11,000 people died.

Also Read- Richer Countries Show Lower Trust in Vaccines

The virus can spread quickly via close contact with bodily fluids of those infected and can be fatal in up to 90% of cases.

Despite new anti-Ebola vaccines, non-biological factors have made the outbreak difficult to control.

Eastern Congo is one of the world’s most turbulent regions, and rebels have attacked medical centers. Community resistance based in fear and mistrust has also hurt Ebola response work.

Identifying people who might have been exposed is crucial. The World Health Organization says at least 112 Ebola contacts have been identified in Uganda.

Ebola, Congo, Uganda
But as Ebola rages they are a source of worry for health workers and local authorities trying to prevent any further cross-border contamination. Pixabay

The outbreak is an “extraordinary event” of deep concern but does not yet merit being declared a global emergency , a Word Health Organization expert committee said last week.

Declaring an emergency could have “unintended consequences,” such as airlines stopping flights or governments closing borders, Preben Aavitsland, the acting chair of the committee, told reporters.

Congo’s Ministry of Health said the decision shows that its efforts to control the outbreak are effective, and some Congolese health workers are also opposed to declaring an emergency.

“Imagine if neighboring countries closed their borders because of us,” said Gerard Kasereka, a health worker who oversees preventive handwashing in the Congolese town of Butembo. “We would suffer because most of the people in Butembo make their living from commerce and most of our merchandise comes from Uganda, Kenya and Dubai.”

Also Read- Monthly Data Usage Per Smartphone Highest in India, States a Report by Ericsson

Despite the obvious risks of further cross-border contamination, Ugandan health officials insist they are prepared to prevent the disease from spreading . They urge vigilance and advise people to avoid hugging and even handshakes. At multiple border crossings travelers must wash their hands in chlorinated water and have their temperature taken before they can proceed.

Uganda has faced several Ebola outbreaks in recent years and has succeeded in bringing them under control, although the area in western Uganda where last week’s deaths occurred has never experienced an outbreak. The country’s first outbreak, in 2000, infected 425 Ugandans and killed more than half of them in the country’s north. Another outbreak in 2007 killed 37 people in Bundibugyo, a remote district close to the Congo border.

“I cannot find a relative in Uganda who is willing to let me stay with them,” said Morian Kabugho, who lives in the Congolese village of Kasindipolo and crosses into Uganda to sell eggs in the busy market.

She complained of the health officials in Congo. “I am not happy with my government. The nurses are lazy. When you go to the nearest health center, they will tell you to go far away in Beni,” Kabugho said.

She said if she ever had a fever and feared she had contracted Ebola, she would cross into Uganda in hopes of getting better care there.

Local authorities acknowledge it is difficult to police the border but hope more people will heed safety messages.

“The challenge we have here is low levels of adoption of the messages we send to the people. A woman comes from Congo, avoids the border crossing and goes through a panya,” said Moses Mugisa, a town clerk who oversees the border area.

As many as 800 Congolese walk into Uganda daily at the Mpondwe border post, according to official figures, but there is no count of how many cross using the footpaths. The numbers swell on market days, when traders arrive with everything from vegetables to sacks of grain.

“The numbers are overwhelming,” said Primrose Natukunda, a branch manager with the Uganda Red Cross who supervises health teams screening travelers. “So, it’s not easy. It’s constant. Every minute you have to be on alert.”

When the border post is closed, the footpaths come alive after dusk, she said: “At night that’s where people pass. There is no one to stop them.” (VOA)