Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Medical Technology

Lost in translation

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 02 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7047
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. 1London, UK
  1. geoff{at}

Africa is not short of its own solutions to the continent’s health challenges, but they are proving hard to get off the ground. Why are novel health technologies in Africa stagnating, and what can be done about it? Geoff Watts reports

“Smelly socks fight malaria,” was a headline that turned up this summer in newspapers around the world. When Fredros Okumu of the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania developed his method of dealing with mosquitoes he was inadvertently pushing buttons guaranteed to generate global publicity. What he had discovered was that the odour of smelly socks, or its synthetic equivalent, constitutes a bait that attracts the insects four times as powerfully as live human beings.

With the support of the not for profit organisation Grand Challenges Canada, Dr Okumu’s discovery is now being further tested and developed with a view to marketing a cheap device for trapping mosquitoes. Despite the widely held impression that Africa is incapable of working out how to help itself, innovative thinking of this kind can be found across the continent (see box).

African solutions to African health problems3

  • A monoclonal antibody test for schistosomiasis devised in Ghana

  • A fuel free medical waste incinerator from Uganda

  • A quick test for indentifying multiple drug resistant tuberculosis bacteria in sputum, also invented in Uganda

  • A skin ointment based on derivatives of Aloe vera and an extract of the neem tree for treating malaria, both developed in Rwanda

  • An artemisinin/lemon grass beverage developed in Uganda to treat malaria

  • A disinfectant formulated in Kenya to destroy drug resistant bacteria on hospital surfaces

This optimistic stance is, however, deeply fractured. Although the insect trap does now have the resources to take it to market, the progress of other ideas from research laboratory to clinic has stalled. None of the products in the box is available in African …

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