A young Ugandan, Makerere University graduate Brian Gitta, may well have the next one on his hands. His company, thinkIT, has developed Matibabu, a non-invasive device used to test for malaria, with smartphones used for diagnosis.
The concept came about because Gitta was fed up of needles.
“I was already getting injections three times a day to fight off a foodborne illness. But as my fever spiked and the pain in my joints worsened, I suspected I was suffering yet another occurrence of malaria, the disease I had contracted as a child and currently kills one child every minute in the developing world,” he told Disrupt Africa.
This suspicion was confirmed by a nurse at a local clinic, using a needle and syringe.
“I hated the needles and kept thinking of ways people could be diagnosed without pain,” Gitta said.
That puzzle was still on his mind weeks later as he began his studies in computer science at Makerere University, and he started thinking about ways technology could be used to improve malaria detection.
“The standard method of determining whether someone has malaria is drawing blood and viewing it under a microscope, which requires health workers and facilities that are scarce in many low-income communities,” Gitta said.
“For me, the goal wasn’t just to alleviate momentary pain; eliminating needles and the need for a lab would not only limit the risk of infection but allow for diagnosis in communities that had no medical centres.”
Gitta shared the idea with his friend Joshua Businge, and they began researching new ways to detect malaria. They learned that for years, light sensors have been used to read the blood’s oxygen content through the skin. This seemed like a promising avenue to explore, so the pair recruited Josiah Kavuma and Simon Lubambo, students skilled in engineering hardware.
The result was Matibabu. A user simply inserts a finger into the clipper device, and then plugs the device into a smartphone. They select “start diagnosis” on the phone, and wait for the diagnosis,which takes about a minute.
“When a person is infected with malaria, the plasmodium affects the red blood cells, changing their shape and chemical properties, and also introducing hemozoin, a crystal-like substance,” Gitta said. “This is what the device looks out for to differentiate between a normal and an infected person.”
The solution addresses malaria disease management by offering cost-effective early diagnosis of the illness, reducing the amount of medication, the duration of treatment and the number of people suffering severe effects of malaria infection, without the need for a needle or trained personnel.
Matibabu has obtained funds through grants and partnerships with the likes of the Resilient Africa Network and Merck, as well prizes form pitching competitions. Listed below are the partners. It is now searching for funding for further development and hopes to hit the market in the next 18 months.
“The potential customers of Matibabu are both domestic and foreign. Domestic customers include individuals, hospital buying groups, country health ministries and other non-governmental organisations,” Gitta said.
“Uganda is our primary target, and later Sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria accounts for 25-40 per cent of outpatient visits and 20-50 per cent of hospital admissions. Early detection reduces the amount of medication and prevents the appearance of symptoms, causing a large socio-economic toll.”
The company will make money from hardware sales and additional services such as medical record integration.