Flash of Insight: Mobile App Tests for Anemia with Camera Flash

“Hb Meter,” a new mobile app field-tested by Africare’s Mwanzo Bora Nutrition Program, is the first non-invasive test for anemia, meaning no pricking or bleeding necessary. A mother places her finger or her child’s finger on the phone’s built-in camera flash, and about 10 seconds later she has an anemia diagnosis.

Anemia is not a disease that gets much attention. It’s not as horrifying as Ebola. It’s not as damning as HIV & AIDS, and it’s not as prevalent as malaria. But it is fundamentally debilitating – shortening lifespan, reducing quality of life, and significantly increasing the risk of death from other causes.

Anemia occurs when someone has too few red blood cells or too little hemoglobin in their blood to adequately transport oxygen around their body, and it can be caused by several factors, the most notable in sub-Saharan Africa being iron deficiency.

A pregnant woman requires double levels of iron for herself and her developing baby, and the risk of death immediately before and after giving birth increases dramatically for a mother with anemia. Iron-deficient anemic women also tend to give birth prematurely, and the infant’s low birth weight severely impacts the child’s health, greatly increasing the risk of illnesses like diarrhea and malaria.

Iron deficient and anemic children continue to suffer in the long-term. Cognitive development is impaired, leading to struggles learning and performing in school, and anemic children are also malnourished, stunted in their growth and have a shorter life expectancy. Almost 60% of children under 5 and almost 40% of women in Tanzania are anemic.

“Hb Meter” bloodlessly detects hemoglobin levels using a mobile phone’s camera flash and uploads the test data to a central database. The standard invasive anemia test secures a small blood sample (pricking the end of a finger) and uses a hemo-control machine to analyze the blood. Right now, Africare/Tanzania is using USAID funding to compare “Hb Meter” test results with standard method results to see if the methods are equally accurate. “Hb Meter” is expected to make it much more likely that people will volunteer for anemia testing, and the app should reduce the cost and risk of infection associated with the invasive test.

The major breakthrough here though is the ability to immediately upload testing data to a central database. Numbers are really hard to come by in the developing world. Most widely publicized statistics are several years old, but that’s just because it’s not feasible to conduct substantial studies every year in regions with limited technology and infrastructure. Case in point, the stat about 60% of children and 40% of women being anemic in Tanzania cited only two paragraphs ago is from a survey in 2010. Those just are the best and most recent numbers available.

Immediate uploads of anemia test results to a central database means Africare and our partners on the ground won’t have to wait half a decade to learn current figures. Data not just on anemia rates, but also on where the highest anemia rates are located, would be available in real time. By continually tracking data broken down by village and by health care facility, Africare and other organizations will be able to swiftly adjust programs to address areas where resources are most needed, improving and saving as many lives as possible.

We could not be more excited about this technology’s potential. The lives of women and children across sub-Saharan Africa could improve in a flash.

Africare’s Mwanzo Bora Nutrition Program is implemented in partnership with local Tanzanian organizations with funding from USAID through Feed the Future. Check out more Africare stories on our blog, or help more Africans improve their lives by donating now!