Malaria is one of the most severe public health problems worldwide. It is a leading cause of death and disease in many developing countries, where young children and pregnant women are the groups most affected. It’s estimated that 3.3 billion people (half the world’s population) live in areas at risk of malaria transmission, and in 2010 caused around 655,000 deaths, 91% of them in the African Region. Thus, there is an urgent need of new tools that can facilitate the rapid and easy diagnosis of malaria, especially in areas with limited access to quality healthcare services.
The MalariaScope project aims to create a mobile-based solution that can provide an effective pre-diagnosis of malaria to be used in medically underserved areas. The intent is to use the new generation of cellular phones in the system architecture, which exhibit significant improvements in terms of image acquisition and image processing and that are becoming widespread worldwide, even in developing countries, and to create a magnification gadget that can be connected to the smartphone and provide the necessary magnification capability.
For the optical magnification, the project is currently developing a cheap alternative to the current microscopes, which can easily be adapted to a smartphone and to be used in the field. The aim is to use the smartphone built-in camera to capture the images for further analysis. The process will be to place the smartphone in the adapter along with the blood smear and have the smartphone image sensor to record a set of magnified images. This collection of images will then be processed, analysed and provide the patient diagnose. A fixed magnification factor in the image acquisition step will be used, discarding the need for a complex mechanical mechanism (currently available in a typical microscope).
The initial image processing tasks are already being developed, and promising results are being achieved in the identification of the parasitemia levels. The initial results are being conducted in cooperation with the Instituto Nacional de Saúde Dr. Ricardo Jorge, Infectious diseases Department, under the supervision of Dr. José Manuel Costa, in Portugal. A prototype smartphone application and a smartphone magnification box aimed for low cost production is also being developed. It is expected that this provides a cheap and alternative solution to the Malaria Rapid Diagnosis Tests (RTDs) allowing to be conducted at early stages of the disease.
In conclusion, the mobile-based system in development could work as a first triage framework for isolated laboratories, where a technician with no special skills in terms of malaria diagnosis, collects blood from a patient, prepares the blood smear and uses the system to analyse the blood sample and shares results in order to provide the correct medication.