Ugandan inventor wins Africa prize for non-invasive malaria test

  • June 28, 2018

A 25-year-old computer scientist from Uganda, Brian Gitta, has won the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation for his invention of a non-invasive malaria kit. The invention is called ‘Matibabu’, the Swahili word for treatment.

The award by the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britain comes with £25,000 ($32,940).

The new malaria test kit works by shining a red beam of light onto a finger to detect changes in the shape, colour and concentration of red blood cells, all of which are affected by malaria. The results are sent within a minute to a computer or mobile phone linked to the device. A Portugal-based firm has been contracted to produce the components for Matibabu.

When Malaria changed the course of history!

Malaria is a chronic disease, no doubt, but what makes this infection lethal is that it can trigger a host of other ailments, which can cause organs like kidneys or liver to fail and the spleen to get ruptured. Damage to the red blood cells by the parasite can result in anaemia and severe forms of malaria can cause the blood sugar to fall so low that it can lead to coma and even death.

Malaria is said to have changed the course of history. When Greek ruler ‘Alexander the Great’ contracted a fever in June 323 BC, his health started deteriorating. And ten days later, the 33-year-old died of what is now regarded as a ‘severe case of malaria.’ Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and thousands of soldiers of wars such as the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the World War I (1914-1918) — all succumbed to this fatal disease.


Malaria- a chronic tropical illness

“Keep out malaria mosquitos, repair your torn screens,” was a writing on the walls from the time of the Second World War. Although the war, a man-made holocaust by all means, reached its finale and the world moved on; the incidents of malaria and the deaths caused by this mosquito-borne disease did not die.

As per the 2015 World Malaria Report by the World Health Organisation, the severity of this epidemic increased, especially after year 2000.

Alarming statistics        

According to the WHO estimates, in 2015 there were 214 million new cases of malaria worldwide (more than the entire population of Nigeria). The African region accounted for most global cases (88%), followed by the South-East Asia region (10%) and the Eastern Mediterranean region (2%). In 2015, there were also around 4, 38, 000 malaria deaths worldwide, of which 90% of the deaths occurred in the African region alone, followed by the South-East Asia region (7%) and the Eastern Mediterranean region (2%).

The latest data by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, an organisation formed exclusively to fight malaria, painted a darker picture as it estimated that 90% of all malaria deaths that occur in Africa are most common in children under the age of five. Despite the alarming statistics, the disease does not list as a priority agenda on the health budget of various economies.

Timeline of malaria

What makes the African continent so prone to malaria? It’s hot and humid climate! So conducive is the tropical climate for this disease that the origins of malaria dating back to the Jurassic period (long before the development of apes) can be traced to Africa. Though Malaria claims hundreds and thousands of lives every year across the globe, the African continent, especially south of the Saharan desert, remains the worst-affected region because of its climate that serves as a fruitful breeding ground for the Anopheles mosquito.

Malaria is known to exist throughout the era of Roman Empire, Ancient Egypt and the Indian subcontinent. Even Hippocrates in Ancient Greece has written a description about the disease. When Malaria reached Europe during the middle ages, people used witchcraft and astrology to find the disease’s cure. It was during this time that the disease got its name ‘mal aria’ meaning ‘bad air’.

Know the disease

Malaria is an infection caused by single-celled plasmodium parasite. However, the deadliest form of malarial infection is caused by a specific parasite known as falciparum. This malignant falciparum malaria is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito. To nurture its eggs, the mosquito bites a human and in that process, transmits the parasites into the human body. These parasites multiply in the host’s liver and on maturation, infect and destroy red blood cells.

The severity of malaria varies – based on the species of Plasmodium parasite. This life-threatening blood disease can spread through animal bites or mosquito stings, through blood transfusions, by sharing needles to inject drugs and from mother to her unborn child. Living in or visiting tropical areas, poverty, lack of knowledge, and little or no access to healthcare also contribute to malaria-deaths worldwide.

Therefore, if you are feeling the chills, when everybody else is complaining about the hot weather, and the chills are accompanied by fever, fatigue, joint pains, vomiting and headaches, it is time to pay a visit to a doctor. Because chances are that the plasmodium parasite has found a way into your body. Be careful, if left untreated, malaria has the potential to kill within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Malaria is fatal

High grade fever, a symptom of this disease, can cause febrile convulsions or seizures in children and hallucinations in adults. It can impair consciousness, leading to psychosis or loss of contact with reality. Photophobia or the condition of light sensitivity and Papilledema (or papilloedema) i.e. optic disc swelling may also occur.

Pulmonary edema can also follow due to the excessive accumulation of fluid in the lungs, causing great difficulty in breathing. When malaria deteriorates further, the parasite-filled blood cells block the vessels to the brain, making it swell and inducing a permanent damage to the brain. This condition in medical terms is called ‘Cerebral malaria’.

Cerebral malaria is the most common complication and cause of death in severe malaria infections. Recently, 42-year old Franco Loja, master Cannabis breeder and the man behind the popular documentary series ‘Strain Hunters’, died while filming an episode in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There were reports that Loja had died due to ‘an aggressive and advanced stage of malaria’.

Malaria, in its milder forms can persist for years and can cause relapses. If rare strains of the disease lie dormant inside a body, it can take as long as 4-5 years for a person to fall ill after being infected.

Interestingly, the residents of a region frequently exposed to the disease acquire a partial immunity to malaria, which can aid in reducing the severity of malaria symptoms. Ironically, this partial immunity declines when you move to a region that is not severely exposed to the malarial parasite for a longer duration.

Take the stride to prevent malaria

Apart from maintaining cleanliness in our houses, we must do as much as we can to keep our surroundings clean and should not allow water to accumulate in our vicinities. In addition, we must take preventive measures such as using mosquito repellents, wear full-sleeved clothes to avoid mosquito bites and go for early diagnosis whenever the symptoms are noticed.

Moving towards a Malaria-free world

Malaria is a villain that the mankind has been fighting for decades. It is one among those deadly diseases that spread its fangs in almost every country of the world. And the only way to fight this disease is to eliminate it completely. According to American entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates, who has committed nearly $2 billion to anti-malaria efforts, “Eradication is the only sustainable solution to malaria. The alternative would be endless investment in the development of new drugs and insecticides just to stay one step ahead of resistance. The world can’t afford that approach.”

Almost every minute a child is killed by this fatal monster. Eradication of malaria can not only save about 11 million human lives, but can significantly contribute (above $2 trillion) in economic benefits worldwide. Let us pledge to protect our children and ourselves from this disease and move a step closer towards a Malaria-free world.

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