The Lifelens smartphone app can take and analyze a microscopic image of a single drop of blood to detect malarial parasites, providing a simpler yet more accurate diagnostic test of the deadly disease.
There were 207 million cases of malaria and an estimated 627,000 deaths worldwide as of December 2013 according to the World Health Organization. Due to concerted efforts by health agencies and governments, mortality rates have dropped 42 percent globally and 49 percent in Africa, where the majority of cases are recorded.
Despite falling mortality rates, the absolute number of deaths due to malaria are still high and 85% of fatalities are children younger than five. There is still no vaccine or cure available.
Current efforts to curb the parasitic disease rely on fast and early diagnosis. But the rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) employed by health workers in the field have a low accuracy rate of just 40 percent. Poor accuracy from this existing diagnostic standard is due to the unstable reagent used. The color of cotton swabs can change color due to a number of factors, not just by the presence of malarial parasites.
The Lifelens smartphone app may just be the solution needed for a more accurate yet straightforward diagnostic approach to malaria.
Just a drop of blood taken with a pinprick test is put on a slide with an inexpensive dye that only the parasites can absorb so they stand out when viewed.
A phone camera attached with a special lens then takes a picture of the blood smear. Using custom imaging technology and microscopy software, the app magnifies the image 350 times down to the cellular level
The smartphone app counts individual cells and malarial parasites and then makes a diagnosis. It also conducts blood counts and detects anemia by comparing the number of normal red blood cells from ruptured red blood cells destroyed by malarial parasites.
Users can transmit data online along with GPS coordinates of cases. Clustering of cases can be seen over time using online maps to guide epidemiologists in tracking and containing malarial outbreaks. Even in remote areas where there is no Internet connection, a health worker can still use the app to make a diagnosis.
The researchers behind Lifelens claim that the app has a 94 percent accuracy rate in detecting malaria, much higher than the 40 percent rate by existing RDTs. The higher degree of diagnostic specificity and accuracy means that false positives are minimized.
If anti-malarial drugs are taken only by people with malaria and not by those mistakenly diagnosed, then health agencies can save more. Moreover, this would decrease the cases of artemisinin-based combination treatment (ACT) resistance. Cell phones installed with the app can be shipped to affected areas and used easily with no special training or language skills needed.
According to its website, “Lifelens hopes to directly address the major problem of reducing child mortality rates throughout the world by providing a robust mobile diagnostic solution for malaria patients.”
Much progress has been made in the fight against malaria. For instance, “In recent years, 4 countries have been certified by the WHO Director-General as having eliminated malaria: United Arab Emirates (2007), Morocco (2010), Turkmenistan (2010), and Armenia (2011),” according to a WHO report.
But Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and a few Middle East countries remain vulnerable. For instance, Yemen has one of the highest incidences of malaria in the Middle East, with 60 percent of the population at risk, and 12,000 deaths annually.