KAMPALA, Aug 13 2013 (IPS) - In his 21 years Brian Gitta has had malaria too many times to count. And over the years, because of the numerous times he has had to have his blood drawn to test for the disease, he has developed a fear of needles. It is little wonder then that he and three of his fellow computer science students worked hard to develop a mobile phone app that detects malaria – without the use of needles.
"I was two or three years old when I first contracted it," says Gitta, who is studying computer science at Makerere University in Kampala.
"It's very unusual to meet people in Uganda who haven't had malaria. If you go to a clinic, you might find that 90 percent of patients have it."
Annually an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Ugandans die from the tropical disease, which is transmitted to humans by mosquitos carrying the malaria parasite. That makes it the country's biggest killer, according to the NGO Malaria Consortium Uganda. Experts say nearly half (about 42 percent) of Uganda's 34.5 million people are host to the malaria parasite, although they do not display any signs of being ill.
Gitta's most recent bout of malaria, just before Christmas in 2012, was severe. He contracted brucellosis, an infectious disease contracted by the consumption of unsterilised milk or meat, and typhoid at the same time and had to be hospitalised for a month.
"I had to undergo lots of blood tests. I was in lots of pain and the doctor's queue was long," he says.
Gitta was bedridden during his convalescence, and during that time he had a light bulb moment. He imagined a "mobile medical centre" that offered a quicker and pain-free diagnosis without needles and pricks. Gitta envisaged using a small device for this – but it was a big vision.
But as soon as he recovered he set to work on realising it.
And this July in St Petersburg, Russia, Gitta, Joshua Businge, Simon Lubambo and Josiah Kavuma, known as team Code 8, were announced the winners of the inaugural Women's Empowerment Award at Microsoft's global student software competition, Imagine Cup. The all-male group was recognised for their development of an application that they call Matibabu, Swahili for medical centre.
In Uganda, malaria is diagnosed via either the microscopic examination of blood films or a rapid diagnostic test.
The microscopic diagnosis usually takes about 30 minutes or longer and requires a lab technologist. It is considered the "gold standard" of testing, as it is the most reliable method. It reveals the presence or absence of the parasite in the blood, the parasite species and the extent to which they have multiplied in the body.
However, a rapid diagnostic test can be done anywhere and without a qualified microscopist. It usually takes about 15 minutes to get the results, though it cannot show the number of parasites as a microscopic diagnosis does.
Matibabu uses a custom-made portable device called a matiscope, which is connected to a smartphone, to do a rapid diagnostic test. The user's finger is inserted into the matiscope, and the application uses a red light to penetrate the skin and detect the red blood cells.
"It's been shown that infected red blood cells have a different physical, chemical and biomedical structure from a normal red blood cell, hence [we] used light-scattering technology to determine the scatter patterns of both normal and infected cells," Kavuma tells IPS.
"Through the difference in the patterns, the app is able to diagnose for malaria without a blood sample."
The hardware has a light-emitting diode and a light sensor, and it transmits the test results to the user's phone for processing.
Matibabu then sends the results to the Microsoft file hosting service, Skydrive, and these can be shared with the patient's doctor almost immediately, preventing the long delay in getting results.
Code 8 says that Matibabu, which can currently only be used with the Windows phone operating system, will help pregnant women in particular. According to the World Health Organisation, half the world's population is susceptible to malaria. Pregnant women, young children and people living with HIV/AIDS are especially vulnerable.
"When a pregnant woman gets malaria it affects the baby," Lubambo tells IPS. "But if it's able to be detected very early it could reduce miscarriages."
However, the team hopes to have Android and other OS versions by mid-2014. They say when they begin introducing other versions for different platforms, they may start using file hosting services, like Dropbox, to store the results.
The students hope their device will be on the market within two years and say the application will be free to download. The hardware may cost between 20 and 35 dollars. The young developers concede that this is a lot of money for many Ugandans.
Currently, in Uganda's private health sector both the microscopic diagnosis and the rapid diagnostic test cost under five dollars, Dr Jane Achan, professor at the department of paediatrics and child health at the Makerere University College of Health Sciences tells IPS.
Malaria affects mostly rural dwellers, she says, adding that in Apach district, northern Uganda, a patient receives over 1,500 infected mosquito bites a year. These people may not have access to smartphones.
"The urban settings are already a little more advantaged in that their health facilities are more accessible, they have more doctors and they have more accessible diagnostic facilities," Achan explains. "At the end of the day this app has to be compared with what is existing and available."
Moses Kizito is the director of private SAS Clinic in Kampala, where they test no less than 50 patients a day for malaria and receive eight to 10 positive results.
He says at the moment Matibabu seemed "quite expensive" but in the long run it may prove economical.
"Once people are forced to go to the clinic [with malaria] it's expensive to manage the disease," Kizito tells IPS.
"With this test people may be able to avoid a doctor's consultation and treat malaria in its early stages before it causes anaemia and brain damage. Once this app comes out, the impact's going to be great."
Kavuma says that Microsoft has offered the group mentoring and business training, but they are considering other options to market and manufacture the product.
"We are planning on contacting Chinese companies for this," he says.
Gitta hopes other diseases can be diagnosed in a similar way. "The future is bright and anything can happen…," he says. "Let's watch out for the next great thing."