Using Video Games to Screen for Malaria

If you have read much of anything I write on this site, you know that I am all for anything that makes gaming a worthwhile endeavor as opposed to just a time killer.  Don’t get me wrong, killing time is sometimes worthwhile, but more beneficial byproducts are starting to become more common.

Researchers at UCLA are using crowd sourcing in the form of an online game to help in diagnosing malaria.  The press release goes into much more detail but here are some of the main points:

-The study was based on the assumption that large groups of untrained people could be trained to recognize infectious diseases at the same level as a trained pathologist.

-After playing the game, these non-experts were able to malaria affected red blood cells within 1.25% of the accuracy of trained professionals.

-While individuals make mistakes, by increasing the number of observers to 20 or even 50 you greatly improve the level of accuracy.

-The research team is also working on an algorithm to allow computer vision to make the same diagnosis, and a hybrid version to further increase accuracy.

Malaria is a huge issue throughout Africa, and in many developing countries in general.  The problem starts with not being able to diagnose people quickly enough, followed by misdiagnosis which leads to unnecessary and expensive treatments.  If we can help alleviate some of the issues at the start of the process, the whole thing will be more effective and efficient.

The obvious major stumbling block is getting the established microbiologists to buy-in to such a simple, and unqualified approach.  This is by no means the first process that has faced scrutiny, and just like all of its predecessors, the researchers will have o prove its effectiveness through clinical trials.

Malaria is not something that we often stress about in America, but it is a very real problem in a very large portion of the world, and it needs to be addressed.  If something as simple as a game can help save lives (malaria accounts for the deaths of 20% of children’s deaths in sub-Saharan Africa) then it is definitely something worth pursuing.  Sometimes it is the simplest solution that provides the greatest results.