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Screening for anemia using a smartphone


A major public health problem, anemia affects around a quarter of the world’s population and more than six out of ten children under 5 in Africa, the most affected continent according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Often the result of nutritional deficiencies, particularly of iron, this condition is characterized by a low level of hemoglobin (Hb) in the blood. It causes fatigue, shortness of breath, pallor, but also, for the little ones, fragility in the face of infectious diseases and brakes on cognitive development.

What if a simple smartphone made it possible, by chromatographic analysis, to detect this scourge? This is the track followed by multidisciplinary scientists from University College London and Accra Medical University, whose research was published on March 3 in PLOS One. The same team had worked in 2020, successfully, on an application – awaiting CE certification – detecting by chromatography thejaundice – commonly known as “jaundice” – in newborns. For this new study, the protein hemoglobin being responsible for the red color of blood, the researchers identified photographable areas of a face, the pallor of which could be linked to the degree of anemia, regardless of the color of the face. skin: the white of the eye, the eyelids and the lower lip.

Sixty-two patients under the age of 4 from Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra were then recruited – “according to the ethical protocols of the two hospitals, British and Ghanaian”, specifies the publication – to be photographed. These data, which can be used for forty-three of them, have fed a learning algorithm which can now measure an anemia rate with an accuracy of 91%, a sensitivity (true positive) of 93% and a specificity (true negative) of 90%. “We are at the proof of concept stage., explains Terence Leung, lead author of the study. Several technical challenges still await us, such as improving the image format, using other brands of smartphones or expanding the sample tested, because it is not easy to photograph in good conditions. small children. »

“Controls at a lower cost”

According to the researcher, “smartphones, now widespread all over the world, have powerful cameras and sensors, which makes them attractive to do medical checks at a lower cost and with low environmental impact, the phone having already been purchased”, he specifies. An argument that the authors put forward against the HemoCue, a portable instrument for diagnosing anemia that has been used for several decades in the field. This one “has a high initial cost and some components have a relatively short lifespan of around two years”say the scientists. “Additionally, the HemoCue still requires a blood sample, even if it’s a simple finger prick, and is still limited to healthcare environments. »

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