'Eye-Phone' a low-cost solution to save the sight of people in world's remote areas

People in remote regions like Rift Valley can benefit from cheap smartphone diagnosis to help treat eye illnesses such as glaucoma

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 9:43am


Simon Kamau, 26, has been in almost constant pain since he was a playful three-year-old and accidentally pierced his eye with a sharp object, but smartphone technology now offers hope.

His family live in an impoverished part of rural Naivasha in Kenya's Rift Valley region and could not afford the 80-kilometre journey to the nearest specialist hospital, leaving the young Kamau blind in one eye ever since.

Today, 23 years later, Kamau has a chance to better his quality of life thanks to a team of doctors from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine armed with an innovative, low- cost, smartphone solution.

"Kenya was a natural test location," the project's team leader, Dr Andrew Bastawrous, said. "For a country with a population of more than 40 million, there are only 86 qualified eye doctors, 43 of whom are operating in the capital, Nairobi."

The equipment used in the five-year study, which is in its final stages, is a smartphone with a lens that scans the retina, plus an application to record the data.

The technology is deceptively simple and relatively cheap: each "Eye-Phone", as Bastawrous likes to call his invention, costs a few hundred euros, compared to a ophthalmoscope that costs tens of thousands of euros and weighs in at around 130kg.

Bastawrous said he hoped the study of 5,000 Kenyan patients would one day revolutionise access to eye treatment for millions of low-income Africans who are suffering from eye disease and blindness. With 80 per cent of the cases of blindness considered curable or preventable, the potential impact is huge.

Data from each patient is uploaded to specialists, who can come up with a diagnosis and advise on follow-up treatment. The results are compared to tests taken with professional equipment to check the smartphone is a viable alternative.

Bastawrous says his "Eye-Phone" has proved its worth, and can easily and accurately diagnose ailments, including glaucoma, cataracts and myopia.

Treatments range from prescription glasses and eye drops to complex surgery that is conducted once every two weeks at a hospital in Nakuru, the nearest big town. So far, up to 200 of the 5,000 people involved in the study have had surgery to correct various eye ailments.

Kamau is among those expecting to receive surgery on his blind eye. Doctors say he is unlikely to recover his full vision because the injury was so long ago, but they can stop the pain and swelling caused by the additional strain on his functioning eye.

Neighbour Mary Wambui, 50, has had eye problems for 36 years but gave up on treatment because existing medical care was far too expensive. "I do not like the feel of hospitals. Their process is long, laborious and costly but with this phone, I got to know of my diagnosis with just a click," she said.

Bastawrous says the success of the smartphone meant it could soon be replicated in other poor areas of Kenya.