Bloodless Test Detects Malaria With Light, Wins Prize

Languishing with fever and frustrated by delays in diagnosing his illness, Brian Gitta came up with a bright idea: a malaria test that would not need blood samples or specialized laboratory technicians.

 

That inspiration has won the 25-year-old Ugandan computer scientist a prestigious engineering prize for a noninvasive malaria test kit that he hopes will be widely used across Africa. 

 

For developing the reusable test kit known as Matibabu, Gitta this month was awarded the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. The award by the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britain comes with $32,940.

Malaria is the biggest killer in Africa, and the sub-Saharan region accounts for about 80 percent of the world’s malaria cases and deaths. Cases rose to 216 million in 2016, up from 211 million cases in 2015, according to the latest World Malaria Report, released late last year. Malaria deaths fell by 1,000, to 445,000.

 

The mosquito-borne disease is a challenge to prevent, with increasing resistance reported to both drugs and insecticides.

No needles

 

The new malaria test kit works by shining a red beam of light onto a finger to detect changes in the shape, color and concentration of red blood cells, all of which are affected by malaria. The results are sent within a minute to a computer or mobile phone linked to the device. 

 

A Portugal-based firm has been contracted to produce the components for Matibabu, the Swahili word for “treatment.”

 

“It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development, in this case by improving health care,” Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation judge, said in a statement. “Matibabu is simply a game changer.” 

 

Gitta and five colleagues, all trained in computer science or engineering, developed an affordable, bloodless test that does not need a specialist to operate. The new test will be suitable for use in Africa’s rural areas, where most cases of malaria occur, because it will not depend on sending blood samples to a distant laboratory.

Others are also working to fill the need for quicker, easier malaria tests. There are more than 200 rapid diagnostic test products for malaria on the market, according to the WHO. 

80 percent accurate now

The fifth-generation prototype of Matibabu, with an accuracy rate of 80 percent, is still a work in process. Gitta and his group aim to refine the device until it achieves an accuracy rate exceeding 90 percent. 

 

Matibabu has yet to be formally subjected to all the necessary clinical trials under Ugandan safety and ethics regulations.

 

“It excites me as a clinician,” said Medard Bitekyerezo, a Ugandan physician who chairs the National Drug Authority. “I think the National Drug Authority will approve it.”

 

The government should invest in the project so that its developers don’t struggle financially, he added. The unit cost of the latest prototype is about $100.

 

Despite the optimism, Gitta has found a hurdle he didn’t anticipate: Some patients are skeptical of unfamiliar technology.

 

“The doctors will tell you that some people will not leave the hospital until their children have been pricked, and until they have been given anti-malaria drugs and painkillers, even if the kid is not sick,” he said. 

 

“We think we are developing for hospitals first, so that people can first get attached to the brand, and gain the trust of patients over time.”


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Swat Team Needed in Volgograd Where Insects Bug Fans & Players

Before it became one of the venues for the World Cup, the city of Volgograd in southwest Russia was famous for an overabundance of small, annoying flies called midges. While the small two-winged flies don’t bite, soccer fans are finding that they don’t leave you alone either. VOA’s Mariama Diallo takes a look at what Russian officials are doing to make the sporting life more comfortable for World Cup fans and players.


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Algorithms Aid Tracking of Migrating Songbirds in Arctic

Tracking wildlife migration has been historically difficult in the rugged terrain of Alaska. Researchers primarily rely on either surveys or GPS tracking to understand bird migration patterns. Both methods are expensive, either in terms of time or money. And the trackers are often too large or heavy. 

One way to sidestep these common issues is to record audio from frequently used nesting grounds. Using birdsong allows researchers to unobtrusively study the animals, although there’s a downside. Each day produces a flood of audio recordings from multiple microphones placed around nesting grounds. It takes trained listeners endless hours to search the noisy soundscape for birdsong.

In a recently published paper in the journal Science Advances, U.S. researchers explain how they got around these tracking troubles. Columbia University ecologist Ruth Oliver and her fellow collaborators replaced the human ears with machine learning algorithms to listen to birdsong.

Costly proposition

Oliver told VOA News, “Arrival times of migratory song birds is really important for their reproductive success. And obviously sending people to the Arctic to do field work is very expensive and takes a lot of time” — hence, the scientists’ interest in creating an automated method for tracking bird species.

Oliver and her colleagues focused on migratory songbirds who fly to northern Alaska during their mating season. These birds tend to chirp more frequently as soon as they reach the breeding grounds to attract a mate. Spring is short in Alaska and the birds must breed and hatch their clutch before winter.

The team of researchers recorded the springtime soundscape of northern Alaska for five sequential years. They placed microphones at four sites in the foothills of the Brooks Range, which recorded 1,200 audio hours.

However, Oliver admitted the recordings weren’t always perfect. “There’s a lot of other noise in these recordings” Oliver said. “Even in May in northern Alaska there’s lots of wind, lots of rain, and all of that is confounding when you’re listening to birds.”

The scientists fed hours of audio into two types of machine learning algorithms — one that used human expertise to help train it and one that relied solely on the collected audio. Both algorithms were based on the same model that’s used by applications like Siri and Alexa.

Oliver told VOA that in creating the human-supervised algorithm, she “wrote a little program to randomly sample about 1 percent of the data set” and then listened to 4-second clips. She scored these clips as either containing or not containing songbird vocalizations and then fed this information into the program.

Both algorithms were fairly accurate at estimating when the avian commuters arrived in the foothills. The models showed the importance of snowmelt for the arrival of the traveling birds. The human-trained model was slightly better at recognizing the relationship between weather conditions and bird calls, although neither model specifically tracked individual species.

This technique has great potential according to Emily Jo Williams, vice president of migratory birds and habitat at the American Bird Conservancy, “This kind of technique that allows you to survey populations in those remote areas is really exciting and could allow us to even discover new places where protection and conservation efforts are needed,” she said.

This study looked at nesting grounds near the Alaskan Arctic Refuge, which is a summer home for birds from nearly every continent. For example, the Northern Wheatear travels approximately 21,000 kilometers (13,000 miles) from Africa to summer in the refuge.

Climate change

Williams told VOA, “We know from some research that some birds’ ranges have actually changed, and they’ve moved in response to what we think is a warming climate.” She went on to explain that “the timing of that migration has evolved over eons, and in large part it’s relative to what food sources are available over a particular time, what weather patterns are or aren’t favorable. So you could end up with bird migration out of sync with insect hatches or the phenology of plants that birds have a relationship to.”

Tools like the algorithm created in this study could be used to track how migratory patterns of many species may shift in response to climate change. Using machine learning is a new way to follow these shifting patterns in birds, insects and other animals.


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1 More American Confirmed Hurt by Mystery ‘Attack’ in Cuba

One more U.S. Embassy employee in Havana, Cuba, has been affected by mysterious health incidents, the State Department said. 

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said one of two Americans recently evacuated from Cuba was “medically confirmed” to have been affected, while the other was “still being evaluated” by doctors. 

25 Americans affected

In all, 25 Americans have been affected by the mystery ailment in Cuba. 

“We still don’t know, to this day, what is causing it and who is responsible,” Nauert said, noting that investigations were underway in Havana as well as Guangzhou, China, where one employee experienced similar symptoms recently.

The United States has said that the Cuba incidents started in late 2016. The State Department calls them “specific attacks” but has not said what caused them or who was behind them. Cuba has adamantly denied involvement or knowledge. 

Initial speculation centered on some type of sonic attack owing to strange sounds heard by those affected, but an interim FBI report in January found no evidence that sound waves could have caused the damage, The Associated Press has reported.

Warning issued in China

The State Department issued a health warning after the employee in China reported experiencing “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure” and was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it as a “serious medical incident.” 

The new confirmation came less than a week after the U.S. renewed demands on Cuba to determine the source of the “attacks” on U.S. diplomats. Cuba responded by again denying any involvement in or knowledge of any such attacks.


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Overweight? Depressed? It May Be Your Microbes

Microbes may be helping stir up anxiety and depression in obese people, if results from a new mouse study hold true in humans. 

The authors link the effects to how the brain responds to insulin, the hormone that regulates sugar levels in the blood. 

The research raises questions about whether changing gut microbes, or changing diet, could help treat these conditions. 

Mood, microbes and metabolism

Obesity triggers changes in metabolism — for example, making liver, muscle, fat and other tissues less responsive to insulin. Left untreated, these changes can lead to diabetes. 

Obese people also have higher rates of anxiety and depression. 

“One could say, ‘Maybe that’s just because they’re obese,’ ” said Harvard Medical School diabetes researcher Ronald Kahn, “but others could say, ‘Maybe there’s a metabolic link.’ ”

“And we asked the question, ‘Maybe the metabolic link is at least partly fueled by the microbiome,’ ” the community of microbes living in a person’s gut, he added.

Those microbes change with diet, and Kahn said different microbes might respond differently to the foods we eat.

To test the theory, Kahn and colleagues fed mice a high-fat diet and studied their behavior as the animals became obese. 

They used common tests to gauge anxious and depressed behavior in rodents — for example, how much time the animals spent hiding in a dark box versus exploring a brightly lit area. The more anxious the mouse, the less time it will spend in the light.

Obese mice spent about 25 percent less time in the light than animals on a normal diet, and they scored higher on the other anxiety and depression tests, too.

Return to normal

But those differences disappeared when obese mice were given antibiotics, even though their weight didn’t change much.

“That really says there’s probably something about the microbiome,” Kahn said. 

The researchers then tested how the animals’ microbiomes affected mice raised in a sterile environment with no microbes of their own. 

Bacteria from obese rodents made these germ-free mice more anxious than microbes from normal mice.

But when germ-free mice got microbes from obese animals that had been given antibiotics, they behaved like normal mice. 

To see what parts of the brain might be responsible for the effects, the researchers focused on two regions involved in metabolism and responses to rewards. They found these regions were less responsive to insulin in the obese mice compared with normal-weight animals. 

Again, antibiotics returned those responses to normal. 

The research appears in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. 

“It was actually quite a surprise,” Kahn said. “Even though we had seen some effects on metabolism in the rest of the body, I was very surprised how dramatic and how clear the effects were also on the brain and on behavior.”

Into the unknown

That doesn’t mean antibiotics are the cure for obesity, Kahn warned. The drugs kill good and bad microbes indiscriminately, and taking the medication unnecessarily can contribute to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance. 

Also, what happens in mice does not necessarily happen in humans, he added, or it may happen for only some people. So far, there is not much evidence that probiotics help anxious people. 

“The difficulty is, both of these things — depression and obesity — are complicated things that have multiple, multiple factors influencing them,” said mental health researcher Gregory Simon at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, who was not part of the study.

Microbes are likely just one factor, along with environment, genetics, social influences and more, Simon added.

But Kahn said his group’s research raised interesting questions about how food affects our behavior. 

“I think now we can get some idea that there are a lot of things that are being metabolized by gut bacteria that could affect brain function,” he said.

And he said there might be ways to change brain function by changing those bacteria, by eating helpful microbes or by eating foods that sustain them. 

He and his colleagues are working to figure out exactly which of the hundreds of species of gut bacteria are responsible. At the moment, it’s a mystery. 


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Study: Leptospirosis Spread by Cattle, Not Just Rats

Fever, chills, and muscle pain aren’t the symptoms just of malaria. They could be signs of leptospirosis, which infects millions of people each year — primarily in tropical regions. 

The under-reported disease is usually spread though contact with rodents, but a new study finds this trend may not hold in northern Tanzania or beyond.

Research in Asia has tied living in close quarters with rats to outbreaks of leptospirosis. The bacterial infection causes symptoms that are often mistaken for malaria. Severe cases can be life-threatening, says Professor Albert Ko at the Yale School of Public Health.

“Our group has done global burden of disease studies on this and there are over a million a cases a year and roughly 60 thousand deaths,” said Ko.

Common source of fevers

Leptospirosis is becoming recognized as a common source of fevers in Africa. But the source of the disease was unclear. It could be rats, or it could be something else, said Michael Maze, of the University of Otago.

“Well, we know that leptospirosis has many possible animal hosts,” said Maze. “I guess the story starts when we identified how common leptospirosis was the cause of severe fever in people coming to the hospital in northern Tanzania.”

Maze and an international team of researchers asked those patients about their lifestyles: how many rats they saw around their home… whether they owned livestock and if so, what kind?

They also tested blood samples for leptospirosis infections. Of the nearly 900 people tested, almost a third were infected, or had been. 

The researchers also trapped almost 400 rats in nearby villages. They tested the rodents to see if they carried the leptospira bacterium like their Asian cousins. They did not.

But cattle did — they found over seven percent of them carried up to four types of leptospira that could potentially infect humans. Goats and sheep did, too, though less often.

Blood samples match

This result matched the findings from the patients’ blood samples. People who owned livestock were most likely to have leptospirosis infections, especially cattle owners.

“Leptospirosis is carried in the renal tract — so the kidney and the bladder — and comes out in the urine of infected animals,” said Maze. “So even simple things like avoiding urine while doing activities such as, for example, milking cattle would be a good first step.”

Maze recommends abattoir workers and dairy farmers wear gloves and other protective clothing.

“A cow is much bigger and it produces a much larger volume of urine and so that creates a greater opportunity for exposure,” said Maze.

But Maze and colleagues found doctors did not diagnose a single one of the patients in the study with leptospirosis. In fact, one in four active cases was misdiagnosed as malaria — even though the patients’ blood tested negative for parasites.

Symptoms similar

Maze says one reason is because symptoms of the two diseases are similar and there is not an accurate, simple test for leptospirosis that can be run in regional hospitals.

“The second reason is that clinician awareness of these diseases is low,” said Maze. “If you don’t recognize them it becomes a cycle where they’re never diagnosed so you never recognize them.”

Yale’s Albert Ko says the work Maze and his colleagues have done provides a better understanding of how leptospirosis spreads.

“This is an important study specifically because it provides key information on risk factors in a high burden setting, said Ko. “In specifically among this at-risk population of vulnerable pastoralist society.”

 


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Live Animals, Meat, Ivory, Wood Seized in Trafficking Stings

Thousands of live animals along with tons of meat, ivory, pangolin scales and timber were seized in a monthlong global crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade that Interpol said exposed the international reach of traffickers.

The live animals recovered in the stings included turtles in Malaysia and parrots in Mexico. Canada intercepted 18 tons of eel meat arriving from Asia. Those arrested included two flight attendants in Los Angeles and a man in Israel whose house was raided after he posted a hunting photograph on social media. 

Operation Thunderstorm, involving 92 countries, yielded seizures worth millions of dollars during May, Interpol said Wednesday.

“The results are spectacular,” said Sheldon Jordan, Canada’s director general of wildlife enforcement. 

Acknowledging the magnitude of the problem, Jordan said global wildlife crime is worth about $150 billion annually and is fourth in value among illegal global trades behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking. 

Criminal syndicates that smuggle flora and fauna often take advantage of porous borders and corrupt officials, transporting illicit cargo at an industrial scale. 

The Thunderstorm swoop included the confiscation of 8 tons of pangolin scales, half of which was found by Vietnamese authorities on a ship from Africa. 

Africa’s four species of pangolins are under increasing pressure from poachers because of the decimation of the four species in Asia, where pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine.

A total of 43 tons of contraband meat – including bear, elephant, crocodile, whale and zebra – 1.3 tons of elephant ivory, 27,000 reptiles, about 4,000 birds, 48 live primates, 14 big cats and two polar bear carcasses were also seized. Several tons of wood and timber were also seized.

China, the world’s largest ivory consumer, banned its domestic trade starting this year in what conservationists hope will relieve pressure on Africa’s besieged elephant populations. While some herds are recovering, a high rate of killing continues in many areas, such as Mozambique’s Niassa reserve. 

Some 1,400 suspects were identified worldwide, Interpol said. Two flight attendants were arrested in Los Angeles carrying live spotted turtles to Asia in personal baggage, said Interpol. Both suspects have been charged with smuggling protected species.

Participating nations were from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North and South America. The Pacific nation of Vanuatu, which is not an Interpol member, took part. 

Officers searched cars, trucks, boats and containers, sometimes using sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners. 

The operation, Interpol Secretary General Juergen Stock said, showed that wildlife traffickers use the same routes as other criminals, “often hand-in-hand with tax evasion, corruption, money laundering and violent crime.”


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