A postage stamp-sized piece of paper that can detect anemia, high blood pressure and related conditions in pregnant women. Sounds too good to be true? Well, not to a nonprofit that has been developing paper-based diagnostic devices for years and is now proposing a similar technology to help prevent high-risk pregnancies in poor rural communities.
Diagnostics for All, a U.S.-based nonprofit group comprised of scientists and doctors, is currently working on a paper-based diagnostics device that can test the liver functions of people using powerful HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis drugs. It also recently received grants to develop agriculture tests using similar technology. Its latest initiative: two kinds of paper-based diagnostic kits that can detect high blood pressure, anemia and hyper- or hypoglycemia. These are conditions common among pregnant women; if undetected, they put a pregnancy at risk.
The development of these maternal health-focused diagnostics devices is DFA’s entry to Saving Lives at Birth, a grants competition by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Norway, World Bank and Grand Challenges Canada. The competition sought innovative ideas for delivering treatment and prevention health services to pregnant women and infants in rural communities around the world. USAID recently released a shortlist of 77 ideas.
The plan: Distribute diagnostic devices to rural communities in developing countries, where hospitals and health centers are few and faraway, if any. The devices are as small as a postage stamp and cost approximately $0.10.
The idea behind DFA’s innovation is quite simple: Postage stamp-sized paper is patterned with channels and wells of water-repellent materials where biological and chemical reagents – substances used to start chemical reactions – are then deposited. These substances change colors upon contact with blood, urine, saliva, sweat and other biological samples. The resulting colors can be compared with a reference scale printed on the test device itself.
Each diagnostics device requires minimal equipment and training – all that’s needed is a drop of blood drawn from a finger prick or a drop of urine. No syringes, no electricity and no sample preparations. Production of the tests is also simple, requiring only a sheet of paper and an office printer. The tests can be manufactured locally in developing countries and DFA says it plans to tap local distributors to market the kits.
DFA’s innovation is in line with an increasing focus among donors on easy-to-use health interventions for community health workers and the rural poor. And while it is still in the laboratory stage, and may take time to scale up, it marks another step toward the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals on maternal and child health.