LONG VALLEY, New Jersey — With the recent Ebola outbreak generating worldwide trepidation, the word “Africa” has become synonymous with “disease” for many people in the Western world. While the continent does contain some of the world’s deadliest diseases, claiming more lives than war and famine combined, many of these diseases could have been prevented with rapid and adequate diagnostic tests. South African scientist and entrepreneur Ashley Uys is saving the lives of rural Africans through low-cost medical test kits.
Diagnosing diseases at earlier stages is considered a “vital factor” for disease control in Africa, reducing health care spending and allowing efficient and optimal treatment options. However, this “vital factor” is often overlooked or disregarded in efforts to combat widespread epidemics, mostly due to its exorbitant cost.
Treatment of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis has advanced rapidly in recent years, but the development of well-functioning diagnostic technologies and laboratory services has slowed. Diagnostic services are currently characterized by a weak network of staff, and insufficient and underdeveloped infrastructure. Only eight percent of laboratories in sub-Saharan Africa meet international accreditation standards, while still catering to approximately 5,000 to 15,000 ailing residents.
With a lack of established qualifications for laboratory equipment, diagnostic tests are not a priority for national governments throughout the continent. This is primarily because the purchase and installation of medical diagnostic equipment in rural clinics is expensive. For example, a CD4-count machine, which determines the aptness of HIV-positive patients for specific treatment, costs over $20,000.
Uys, a businessman from Cape Town who currently manages three manufacturing and marketing companies, is proposing an alternative solution to diagnostic tests that doesn’t exceed one dollar.
The idea of “test kits” originated from the widespread abuse of drugs, such as methamphetamine, in Cape Town. “I did a market analysis and saw there was a gap in the market for diagnostic tests for drugs of abuse,” said Uys in ‘How We Made It In Africa.’ At age 24, Uys founded Real World Diagnostics, a company that supplies Alpha Pharm pharmacies in South Africa with rapid drug and pregnancy test kits.
But Uys’ entrepreneurial and scientific venture did not end there. In 2010, Uys founded Medical Diagnostech, which manufactures diagnostic test kits for HIV, malaria, pregnancy, fertility and a range of drugs. These products are distributed to pharmaceutical branches, drug rehabilitation centers and medical clinics at affordable prices.
Uys’ malaria test kit has particularly attained much success, providing users with an early diagnosis of a malaria strain and indicating whether the medication is working. Sold for as little as R4 (U.S. $0.34), these kits are distributed to markets in Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and other areas where malaria subdues the population.
Uys’ is currently developing a solution to detect impairment due to substance abuse. Through his recently founded company, OculusID, Uys has created applications for cameras and phones that analyze the pupil of the eye and determine whether a person is under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The company’s objective is to ensure workplace safety by installing these detection cameras throughout the mining sector. OculusPro, the company’s latest product, will control employee access to work sites through facial recognition and impairment detection.
According to Uys, his efforts to provide Africans with innovative diagnostic solutions is meant to “improve detection and treatment of health problems, contribute to the sustainability of the communities in which we operate and contribute positively to the development of the local economy.”
With these three guiding principles, Uys’ cheap alternative solution could be groundbreaking for disease control measures in Africa.
– Abby Bauer