This is the best news ever if you hate needles. Well, the world’s first needle-free, chemical-free infrared and mobile-like malaria detection tool has been developed by Dr Maggy Sikulu-Lord, a Kenyan scientist in Australia.
Malaria is usually detected by a blood test, but now, scientists have devised a method using a device that shines a beam of harmless infrared light on a person’s ear or finger for five to 10 seconds.
The beam collects an infrared signature that is processed by a computer algorithm.
But how did the world get here?
In 2009, Dr Sikulu-Lord, who was born and bred in a small village in Sirisia, Bungoma County, got a scholarship to go to Australia for a PhD that covers what she loves working on — mosquitoes.
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“Mosquitoes kill a lot of people, more than any other disease — about 700,000 people a year — and this is why I am interested in them.”
The scientist leads the Infrared Surveillance and Diagnostics team within the Faculty of Science at the University of Queensland, Australia, and works in partnership with the Australian Defence Force and Instituto Oswaldo Cruz in Brazil.
Speaking to the Nation, Dr Sikulu-Lord said it is currently a big challenge to test large groups of people.
“You have to take blood from everyone and mix it with a reagent to get a result but, with this tool, we can find out very quickly whether a whole village or town is suffering from or carrying malaria,” she said, pointing out that the technique is chemical-free, needle-free and detects malaria through the skin using infrared light .
She said she had always wanted to be a medical doctor but her grades did not allow her.
“I slightly missed the mark, and so ended up pursuing a science degree in zoology and chemistry at the University of Nairobi, Chiromo Campus, after which I enrolled for a masters in applied parasitology at the same institution. Then I got a scholarship to pursue a PhD in medical entomology at Griffith University in Australia, where I focused on mosquitoes that transmit malaria,” she disclosed.
Her research focuses on developing novel and rapid next-generation surveillance and diagnostic tools for detection of pathogens in humans, animals and the environment and for characterising disease-carrying vectors.
Her current specialisation is in the development of non-invasive tools based on spectroscopy techniques. After finishing her studies in 2013, Dr Sikulu-Lord says the funding she got from USAID helped her to progress her work.
Last week, the scientist, who also recently developed a mobile app called Disease Adviser which she describes a real-time infectious disease warning platform together with her husband, Mr Anton Lord, packed their bags to visit Kenya for the first time in 13 years. The platform targets people living in disease endemic areas, as well as those planning to travel there.
The scientist says it can inform people in real time when they are at risk of contracting an infectious disease, when there is an outbreak within their area or when they are at risk of coming in contact with disease-carrying insects.
She added that the whole world is currently at risk of contracting infectious diseases, including respiratory illnesses such as Covid-19, those transmitted by mosquitoes, (Zika, dengue, chikungunya, Ross River, malaria), among others.
“However, most of these diseases lack chemoprophylaxis and/or vaccines and disease-carrying vectors are extremely difficult to eradicate.
It’s important to alert people when they are at risk of contracting these diseases so that they can apply appropriate protective measures,” she said.
Dr Sikulu-Lord added that travellers are largely responsible for the transmission of infectious diseases within and between countries and they are the reason Covid-19 travelled so far so fast.
“Reducing the risk of infections for this group of people will significantly slow the spread of infectious diseases globally,” she said.