Brian Gitta with malaria testing device

Non-invasive malaria testing kit wins prestigious Africa Prize

Image credit: Royal Academy of Engineering

A Ugandan software engineer has taken home the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize, which was awarded for his work on a device which detects malaria without the need to remove blood.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease caused by parasitic, single-celled microorganisms. The infectious disease has a major impact on economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions; a Lancet study estimated that malaria was to blame for an annual economic losses of $12bn (£9bn) across Africa due to healthcare costs and impact on work.

Days after being infected, patients begin to suffer symptoms such as fever and vomiting. Although those who seek treatment are likely to recover entirely, those who receive poor care - or none at all - risk death.

Detecting the disease typically requires a sample of blood to be taken from the patient, prepared and examined under a microscope. Patients in areas without well-equipped local healthcare facilities struggle most to receive diagnosis and treatment.

“Most communities in Africa don’t have access to healthcare, such as diagnosis of Malaria,” said Brian Gitta, winner of the Africa Prize. “We’re trying to close the gap between communities and how they access healthcare.”

Gitta, a software engineer, was inspired to develop the device after bouts of malaria prevented him and his classmates from attending lectures.

“[We] started at campus when we were freshman,” Gitta told E&T, “and we came together as a team to create a solution to diagnosis because, growing up in the region that has high malaria prevalence, we had a lot of malaria cases that reduced our productivity.”

Gitta and his peers developed a device named Matibabu (meaning “medical centre” in Swahili), which tests for malaria without drawing blood. The device requires no biomedical expertise to use; it is simply clipped onto a person’s finger. A beam of red laser light shines through the finger, such that subtle changes in the shape, colour and concentration of red blood cells can be detected. Certain changes in these features can indicate malaria.

Matibabu is undergoing testing in partnership with a major hospital in Uganda. Meanwhile, Gitta and his colleagues are busy hunting for suppliers for the device’s magnetic and laser components. They hope that the device can be mass produced and sold for as little as $100 (£75) per unit, rendering it accessible to less well-heeled communities.

The team faces competition from numerous groups around the world also working on non-invasive diagnostic testing technologies, although Matibabu stands out for its affordability, ease of use and the speed with which results can be produced: after scanning, the results are available on a linked smartphone one minute later.

This could make the device suitable for local health centres, although Gitta also hopes that the devices could be set up within community spaces for one-off tests that anybody can take.

Matibabu beat out competition from across the world to win the Royal Academy of Engineering’s £25,000 Africa Prize, which is awarded for innovations with major social and economic potential for the continent. Gitta is the first Ugandan to win the prize since it launched in 2014 and also the youngest winner so far at the age of 24. He told E&T that he is “honoured” to receive the prize.

Runners up for the prize were Collins Saguru, who is working on a sustainable technique for recovering precious metals from car parts (AltMet), Ifediora Ugochukwu, who is working on a smart meter system (iMeter), and Michael Asante-Afrifa, for his miniaturised laboratory (Science Set).

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