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The Ugandan invention that diagnoses malaria in 2 minutes

Illustration : Didier Kassaï for Heidi.news

Malaria is one of the most common diseases in Africa, but also one of the deadliest. The main cause of it killing 380,000 Africans in 2018: late diagnosis. In Uganda, a geek, Brian Gitta, has found a way to speed up diagnosis with the help of light.

This article was originally published in French on Heidi.news. It is the fifth episode of an exploration entitled "11 African Solutions for the Future World".

In Kampala, the Ugandan capital, queues to hospitals are often interminable. Every day, dozens of patients – some of them sitting on the floor – wait for a white coat to finally come and take care of them. Many simply seek medical confirmation before taking their treatment: have they or have they not contracted malaria once again in this new rainy season?

In this country on the borders of southern and central Africa, as in the rest of the continent, malaria is as commonplace as influenza is in Europe. And yet, in 2018, this mosquito disease was still killing more than 1,000 Africans every day, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). "Doctors are there, treatments are there, but people are still dying, mainly because they are not tested in time," says Brian Gitta, a young Ugandan engineer.

Read the article in French: L'invention ougandaise qui diagnostique la malaria en 2 minutes

A diagnosis in two minutes

Five years ago, while immersed in his computer studies, the apprentice used his geek skills to come up with a solution to save all those lives that could easily be saved with a quicker diagnosis. Prototype after prototype, the student ended up creating the "Matibabu", an electronic device capable of diagnosing malaria in less than two minutes using light and magnets.

The device is contained in a small metal case that can be carried over the shoulder. Once opened, patients simply slide their finger into an alcove to see the test results appear on the doctor's computer or telephone screen. By diffusing light and magnetism, Matibabu almost instantly identifies red blood cells infected with plasmodium, a malaria vector parasite, from healthy red blood cells. "Matibabu's real plus is its speed. It takes two minutes to make a diagnosis, whereas with traditional tests, it takes at least 30 minutes. And the wait can go up to 12 hours when there’s really is a lot of people in the health centre’s waiting room," explains Brian Gitta.

The most common malaria test in Africa is the so-called thick drop test. It consists of taking a drop of blood from the patient's finger. Then, a laboratory or competent staff analyzes the sample under a microscope, before delivering the long-awaited verdict. But in many African health facilities, both staff and equipment are often lacking, as Dr Spes-Caritas Ntabangana, WHO focal point for malaria control in Central Africa, points out: "Microscopy requires good infrastructure, with electricity, and highly qualified and supervised staff. But they are not always available to take blood samples and then examine blood smears. These staff shortages can have an impact on the diagnosis and treatment of malaria."

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One doctor for every 3,324 inhabitants

According to the WHO, there is an average of one nurse for every 985 people in Africa and only one doctor for every 3,324 inhabitants. On the continent, the qualified white coats are overwhelmed and their time is precious. So Brian Gitta designed his solution in the simplest possible way, so that any health worker, even the least qualified, would be able to use it. A way to free up some of the time of the most qualified health workers. "I wanted to make sure that doctors and nurses no longer had to spend so much time in the laboratory on such a trivial test as malaria. The aim is to enable them to focus more on the patients who really need it, and thus improve the quality of care in our hospitals," explains the Ugandan engineer.

WHO is closely monitoring the young man's innovation. "But its accuracy, cost, and feasibility of use in developing countries need to be assessed," says Dr Spes-Caritas Ntabangana. So Brian Gitta continues his clinical trials. In Uganda and Angola, Matibabu has already been tested on more than 300 patients. The reliability rate of the light machine is encouraging: more than 80%. And Brian Gitta assures us that its selling price will be much lower than the tests currently on the market: between 100 and 400 dollars, depending on the future technological developments of his solution.

Collecting data to predict the evolution of malaria

The engineer's ambitions are immense. "We're waiting for the end of clinical trials to be certified by the Ugandan authorities and start entering the market [...] Then we hope to set up in other countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa," he explains. For health authorities in African countries, the data that Matibabu collects during each test is worth gold. The device keeps everything in its memory. Having access to it would allow them to predict the evolution of malaria in their country, to know the areas most affected by the disease in order to adapt their health response and future awareness campaigns.

Uganda is in dire need of more effective malaria control. In 2018, the country was at the bottom of the global podium of the countries most infected by the disease, behind Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with 11.4 million cases recorded by WHO out of the 228 million malaria cases reported worldwide that year.

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Didier Kassaï is a self-taught illustrator, watercolorist and cartoonist, born in 1974 in the Central African Republic. His first comic book, L'Odyssée de Mongou, was published by l'Harmattan BD in 2014. The following year he published Tempête sur Bangui, in two volumes La Boîte à Bulles. For this series on African solutions, he created eleven original illustrations for Heidi.news.

11 African solutions for the future world