Monday, April 11, 2011

Countdown to World Malaria Day: at the intersection of imagination and malaria

There’s been another fascinating development at the intersection of imagination and malaria – and it goes right to the heart of trying to solve problems that affect those so poor that there are no markets for solving them. A group of students from UC Davis, Harvard, UCLA and several other schools have developed an application that enables a smart phone to diagnose malaria by taking a picture of a blood sample and then process the data to detect malaria parasites.

The students are participating in the annual Imagine Cup contest sponsored by Microsoft, which this year has as its theme: “imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” Their application is called LifeLens and uses a microscope attachment on a Samsung Smart Phone. You can read about it at

This overcomes the obstacle of needing to have an expensive laboratory in remote areas that are malaria endemic. It would enable a doctor or nurse working, for example, in an African village lacking Internet access to make a diagnosis without having to upload data for processing elsewhere. The same diagnostic technology may work for Sickle Cell and other diseases.

What the students have really done is use imagination and technology to find a way to address a market failure. Those affected the most by malaria are so poor and economically marginalized that there simply is no market to serve them. There are no financial incentives or rewards for creating the diagnostic labs or tools necessary. So instead the students have found a way around that market failure with an application that could reduce the complexity and cost of diagnosis.

I begin The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men ( recounting the death of my thirteen year old Ethiopian friend Alima Dari, who was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis but actually had cerebral malaria. By the time they got her to a hospital hours away it was too late. Her death might have been prevented by LifeLens. And the deaths of nearly 800,000 children from malaria each year will only be prevented when global health entrepreneurs better understand and adapt to both the constraints and the potential that market forces offer.

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