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[KAMPALA] Researchers’ quest to use a smartphone-based innovation to aid diagnoses of diseases in Africa has received a funding boost.

Inaccurate diagnosis of malaria leads to patients failing to receive needed treatment and overuse of drugs, contributing to drug-resistant strains and possibly the failure to treat diseases with similar early symptoms such as meningitis or typhoid, according to Fred Kiwanuka, the principal investigator of the project and an assistant lecturer at Makerere University’s College of Computing and Information.

The 18-month project was funding by the Grand Challenges Canada last month (22 September) together with 21 others, with each receiving 112,000 Canadian dollars (about US$100,000).

“It saves time for decision-making by the technician as his concentration is triaged to the parts of the image most indicative of Plasmodium (in malaria).”

John Quinn, Makerere University

John Quinn, a senior lecturer in Makerere University’s College of Computing and Information Sciences, who is involved in the project, explains that in a phone imaging setup, a smartphone is attached to a microscope to capture and transmit blood smear images printed in 3D for extra magnification to obtain a sufficient level of detail on malaria parasites for the laboratory technician.

Kiwanuka explains that the project is based on a technique that could generate diagnostic tests for tuberculosis, worm infestations, or diseases caused by parasites in blood, including malaria, adding that a malaria diagnosis using the device could cost US$10 or less.

Livex Andrew Okwi, a senior biomedical scientist at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, says that although there are global efforts to control and eradicate malaria through accurate, rapid and cost-effective diagnostic tools, its misdiagnosis is still a problem. “The device is a good way of screening and sustaining the service,” Okwi adds.

The researchers say their innovation could also address the difficulty encountered by laboratory technicians in using microscopes to diagnose parasites. 

Uganda’s Ministry of Health has over the last two years provided microscopes to clinics all over the country, but most lack trained technicians to make a reliable diagnosis based on visual inspection of a blood, stool or urine samples, according to government sources, who did not want to be named.

“It saves time for decision-making by the technician as his concentration is triaged to the parts of the image most indicative of Plasmodium (in malaria),” says Quinn.

Julian Atim, a public health expert working with Malaria Consortium Uganda, says the device provides a way for increasing accuracy of malaria diagnosis and is cheap because of only the initial cost incurred in installing the software into a smartphone.

The device could also be used to track the effectiveness of malaria treatments over time in individual patients, enabling clinics to make the best use of their anti-malarial drugs, says Kiwanuka, adding: “This in turn will help to lower the number of deaths from malaria and slow the emergence of drug-resistant strains of this deadly parasite”. 

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.

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