The Jerusalem-based start-up whose intention is to eliminate malaria by applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) has grabbed the world’s biggest prizes for innovation, XPRIZE.

ZzappMalaria progressed as one of 3 finalists after making it from a group of 10 semi-finalists following presentations of each company before a panel, which sat in New York City last year.

XPRIZE was created to celebrate innovative people or companies who contribute immensely to addressing humanity’s greatest challenges. In partnership with IBM Watson, XPRIZE are in a bid to advance the use of AI to solve humanity’s problems.

Despite not being blessed with mineral resources (diamond, gold, platinum, oil etc), Israel is creative and groundbreaking in its innovations. Israel is located in one of the driest regions of the Middle East, and so they had to use innovative measures to source water, food and other things which human beings cannot live without. They became inventors of many things which were introduced to the world. Did you know that the first cellular phone was developed at the Motorola facility in Israel?

South Africa’s Department of Health said that more than 600 000 malaria-related deaths occur in Africa, most of which are children under the age of 5 years old. Around 60% of these are clinical cases, and about 80% of malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria constitutes a major barrier to social and economic development in the region.

Africa is most certainly one of the regions which will directly benefit from this development by ZzappMalaria. The Israeli company has already begun its critical work in Ghana, Tanzania, Zanzibar and Ethiopia. Reducing the figures of fatalities is imminent and long overdue as the continent has been unable to efficiently deal with malaria for decades. 

Although malaria is not a major public health problem in South Africa as yet, the country needs to be better prepared in order to ensure that the disease does not cause any problems in the public health care sector, by adopting efficient measures such as the AI method developed by ZzappMalaria. The notion of “prevention is better than cure” should reign supreme in our heads to ensure that our public health is not brought to dismay.

Approximately 10% of South Africa’s population (4.9 million) is at risk of contracting malaria, largely in the provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal. This is a significant number that should be a concern to all of us. Malaria is a curable and treatable disease as long as it is diagnosed as quickly as possible. However, it is likely fatal if not done so in the earlier stages. That is where this new app becomes necessary – to detect malaria in the blood of those who have been exposed to risky areas.

ZzappMalaria is one of many successful start-ups. Established five years ago, the main intent and focus was and is on waging war against malaria, by developing a lab-grade blood testing system that gives results in a matter of minutes to detect malaria. Their approach is through larviciding – targeting the breeding sites of the mosquitoes.

Through technological advancement, it has become evident that medication alone would not help to fight diseases that are threatening humanity. The combination of technology and medicine has proven to work wonders at saving the world and creating hope and possibility for the creation of a world free from preventable disease.

As the world is facing a life-threatening Covid-19 pandemic, we are able to see the importance of technology in reducing the casualties that we are witnessing. It is clear that without technology, the price to be paid would be higher than what we are paying currently.

The XPRIZE first spot secured recently by ZzappMalaria, included a $3 million prize. The Jerusalem-based start-up announced that it would use the money to continue the fight against malaria. “We will dedicate the prize money to one ambitious goal: demonstrating that rapid malaria elimination is possible in Sub-saharan Africa,” said the CEO and founder of ZzappMalaria, Amon Houri-Yafin.

AI should be encouraged to help solve some of our biggest problems which have been part of our crises for many years. ZzappMalaria has inspired confidence in those who were in despair and had accepted malaria as part of their lives. Now there is much greater hope that malaria could be exterminated in our lifetime.

In other developments, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that China is the first in the Western Pacific region to achieve being malaria-free in 30 years. Strong political commitment and strengthening of the national health systems were hailed as success factors to eliminate a disease that was once a major public health problem.

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Kenneth Mokgatlhe

Kenneth Mokgatlhe is a political and social commentator.

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