Ugandan inventor, Brian Gitta, has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Prize for a device that detects malaria without drawing blood. The device does this by shining a red beam of light on the patient’s finger and sends the diagnosis to a mobile phone within a minute.
The device is called Matibabu, which means treatment in Swahili. Gitta, who is 24-years-old created it after blood tests failed to diagnose him when he had malaria. He had missed many lectures having had the disease several times and it took four blood tests before doctors recognized that he had the disease, despite malaria being the leading cause of death in Uganda.
Malaria accounted for the lives of 27% of Ugandans in 2016, which demonstrates the need for a device like this. “It is high time for us all to reinvigorate our efforts to ensure that we control these preventable deaths using the most cost effective intervention,” said Uganda’s ministry of health.
The majority of deaths caused by malaria happen in sub-Saharan Africa. It is usually transmitted by the bite of the Anopheles mosquito which is the carrier.
“[Gitta] brought up the idea: ‘Why can’t we find a new way of using the skills we have found in computer science, of diagnosing a disease without having to prick somebody?” Shafik Sekitto told BBC’s Focus on African Programme.
“Matibabu is simply a game-changer,” Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation judge and Cameroonian technology entrepreneur, said in a statement. “It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development – in this case by improving healthcare.”
The device makes it much easier to detect malaria as it does not require a specialist to operate. The red beam detects changes in the color, shape, and concentration of red blood cells, which are all affected by malaria. The Matibabu team hopes that it can one day improve detection of malaria across the continent.
However, before that, it has to go through a number of regulators before being available in the market. It is “not an easy journey because you have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the device is safe for human use,” said Sekitto. The device is currently undergoing testing in partnership with a national hospital in Uganda and sourcing suppliers for the magnetic and laser components.
Therefore, in the meantime, the team is currently writing an academic paper on their findings. They have also been approached by international researchers who are offering their support and performing field trials, following the winning of the prize.
The Royal Academy of Engineering offers commercialization support as well as training and mentoring to their finalists. They are then invited to present at an event held in Africa and a winner is selected to receive £25,000 along with three runners-up, who are each awarded £10,000. This year the ceremony was held in Nairobi. Gitta and the other finalists delivered presentations, while judges and a live audience voted for the promising engineering innovation.
Launched in 2014, “the Africa Prize encourages ambitious and talented sub-Saharan African engineers from all disciplines to apply their skills to develop scalable solutions to local challenges, highlighting the importance of engineering as an enabler of improved quality of life and economic development,” says a statement on their website.
Gitta is not only the first Ugandan to win the prize but also the youngest winner to date. The three runner-ups were:
- Collins Saguru, a Zimbabwean working in South Africa, for AltMet, a low-cost, environmentally friendly method for recovering precious metals from car parts.
- Ifediora Ugochukwu from Nigeria for iMeter, an intelligent metering system that gives Nigerian users transparency and control over their electricity supply.
- Michael Asante-Afrifa, from Ghana for Science Set, a mini science lab that contains specially developed materials for experiments.
Gitta commented: “We are incredibly honoured to win the Africa Prize – it’s such a big achievement for us, because it means that we can better manage production in order to scale clinical trials and prove ourselves to regulators. The recognition will help us open up partnership opportunities – which is what we need most at the moment.”
Featured Image via Flickr/Ed Uthman