A 24-year-old Ugandan engineer has won Africa’s most prestigious engineering prize for inventing a quick, low-cost malaria test that doesn’t require drawing blood.
The Royal Academy for Engineering’s Africa Prize awards young African innovators who use their skills to find creative solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges.
This year’s winner is 24-year-old Ugandan engineer Brian Gitta for his malaria-detecting device. What makes his unique from previous testing methods is the device requires now blood sample to diagnose symptoms of the disease.
Instead, the device takes advantage of a characteristic deformation of red blood cells caused by the malaria parasite. When a person is infected, the parasite takes over vacuoles in red blood cells, which changes the cell’s shape.
The device is clipped onto a patient’s finger and uses a red beam of light to scan for changes in the colour, shape and concentration of red blood cells.
Other advantages of this device are it doesn’t require a specialist to operate, results are produced within minutes and test results are delivered straight to the patient’s cell phone. Combined, these features make the device ideal for remote or rural areas that lack healthcare infrastructure.
Gitta called the device ‘Matibabu’, which means ‘treatment’ in Swahili. He was inspired to develop the device after realising the limitations of blood-based tests, something he experienced firsthand. He suffered from undiagnosed malaria for years, even after several blood tests.
Ending malaria by 2030 is part of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 (good health and wellbeing).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of infection. In 2015, there were an estimated 212 million cases, which resulted in 429,000 deaths. Almost 90 per cent of cases and 92 per cent of deaths were from areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, which bears most of the burden of this disease. Malaria is also one of the largest killers of children under the age of five.
“Matibabu is simply a game changer,” said Africa Prize for Engineering judge Rebecca Enonchong.
“It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development – in this case by improving healthcare.”
Along with prize money, Gitta will receive funding and mentorship to continue developing Matibabu.
A combination of research, policy, education and innovation have brought UN SDG 3 closer by the year, and scientists and engineers from across the African continent are leading the charge to end malaria.
In 2015, Nigerian-founded biotechnology firm Fyodor successfully developed a dipstick test that checks a patient’s urine for signs of malaria. Other inventions include: a compound that could block human transmission of the malaria parasite; a low-cost mosquito repelling soap; and a potential malaria vaccine that is currently undergoing trials.
Morocco and Egypt have already been declared malaria free, and six more African countries are on track to eliminate transmission of the disease by 2020.