Researchers just developed an app that can use photos of blood samples to quickly diagnose malaria — and more patients could get treatment because of it, CNN reports.
A team at Uganda's first Artificial Intelligence lab at Makerere University are using a cell phone app to analyze blood samples and ease the burden on microscope technicians, who are often tasked with processing too many samples in a day.
"We have so many patients who may require malaria and TB tests, and we have one technician looking at all these slides," Alfred Andama, a doctor at the lab, told CNN. "Apart from affecting their eyes, this also compromises their ability to report correctly what they see."
Microscope technicians are supposed to examine around 25 samples each day but often see four times as many, due to a lack of qualified workers and the high number of patients.
When a smartphone is clamped onto a microscope's eyepiece, the software analyzes images of the blood sample and circles malaria parasites in red, to be reviewed later by a lab worker.
The app works hand-in-hand with lab technicians, who must train the technology to count and map pathogens efficiently. When the app is prepared, diagnosis times are cut dramatically, from 30 minutes to two minutes.
While it's only being used in small-scale trials in Kampala hospitals, researchers are hopeful that the app will soon reach rural communities in Northern Uganda, where people are at higher risk of dying from malaria.
"Almost everyone in Uganda, including me, has had malaria," Rose Nakasi, lead scientist behind the app, told CNN. "It affects me as a person, and it affects Uganda. So I feel attached and want to contribute in any way that I can to its proper diagnosis."
Malaria was the leading cause of death in Uganda as of 2016 — 27% of deaths resulted from the mosquito-borne disease. The country also sees the highest rate of malaria in the world, with nearly 480 per 1,000 people contracting it annually.
Mortality rates are highest for young children and pregnant women in Uganda and across sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, the region was home to 92% of malaria cases and 93% malaria deaths in 2017, according to the World Health Organization.
By expediting diagnosis and treatment, Nakasi's app could make a huge difference in the fight against malaria in Uganda and globally.