If you are a woman in Uganda, you likely pray you don’t develop vaginal infections—and not just because they are a bitch.
Uganda is home to one of worst healthcare systems in the world, and on top of that, many female health issues carry social stigmas. Embarrassed by problems down there, women often choose to suffer in silence rather than seek medical care—hoping a condition goes away.
For five university students majoring in information technology and engineering, however, the shoddy state of women's healthcare presented an opportunity. The women have just invented a brilliant device and accompanying app, which they've named the Her Health BVKit, to allow women to test for vaginal infections at home.
"The BVKit is a self-test application that helps women check for unhealthy vaginal bacteria, since most are shy to get tested especially with issues concerning their reproductive health, and most wait for their sicknesses to worsen to seek medical attention," one of the app's creators, Nanyombi Margaret, told me.
Indeed, many vaginal health issues present with similar symptoms but require dramatically different treatment. Without the help of a doctor, it can be tough to tell one condition from the other—which leads many women to incorrectly self-diagnose, "treating" a yeast infection when they have bacterial vaginosis. Or worse, seeking no treatment at all.
The women, all students at Uganda's Makerere University, are looking to remove the guess work. The BVKit tests specifically for the most common vaginal infection women face: bacterial vaginosis. While nearly 30 percent of women between the ages of 14 and 49 have bacterial vaginosis at a given time in the U.S., according to the CDC, in some parts of Uganda, the incidence is said to be as high as 50.9 percent.
Like a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or BV, occurs when an overgrowth of certain bacteria in the vagina throws off its natural pH balance—symptoms include discharge, itching, burning, and inflammation.
But BV involves more than just uncomfortable side effects. The condition makes women more susceptible to certain STDs, including HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, and may increase a woman's risk of contracting HPV. It has also been shown to make HPV more persistent in the body—meaning it doesn't clear up. Not only that, some studies have shown that BV may be linked with increased risk of cervical cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, and miscarriages.
But unlike a yeast infection, persistent bacterial vaginosis can only be treated with specific antibiotics—and not over-the-counter medications. Making matters worse, research estimates that around half of women with BV don't even exhibit symptoms. These women will often avoid going to the doctor until the problem reaches DEFCON ONE levels, at which point damage may have already been done.
Which is why the BVKit is so important, especially in Uganda and other parts of Africa where medical care itself can be hard to come by, said Margaret. The creators hope women will purchase and use it "as regularly as possible"—even when they're not exhibiting symptoms—to stay on top of their health.
Here's how it works. The BVKit is made up of a reusable pH sensor and a downloadable app called (appropriately) Vaginosis. To use the kit, women pee in a cup and dip in the sensor, which will read the pH levels of the urine sample and send them to the Vaginosis app using Bluetooth. The app will then decipher the reading and decide whether or not there's an infection. If the reading determines BV is present, the app will also list nearby doctors who can treat the infection.
The combination of reusable hardware and software is what makes the kit so ideal. While other BV test kits are on the market globally, they are not reusable and require a trip to the store every time a woman wants to get tested (which can mean an embarrassing encounter with a sales clerk). Not only does this mean women won't test regularly, but for women who don't have a CVS nearby, it's especially problematic.
"[Other kits] are not common and quite expensive for an ordinary person down here in Uganda," said Margaret. "We decided to make an application to be used with a one-time buy hardware. It will be reusable, informative, educational, and give instant results."
Yet the cost of the BVKit may prove a barrier for some. The sensor is priced at 90 U.S. dollars—which is expensive in Uganda, considering the gross national income is around $660. (For comparison, other non-reusable BV test kits cost between $15 to $75.) But the students' kit does save a trip to the doctor, and the app is free to download.
It should also be noted that while nearly all Ugandans own a cellphone, only about 5 percent own a smartphone. However, in other parts of Africa, like South Africa and Nigeria, one in three own a smartphone, and these numbers are rising yearly.
Margaret and her fellow creators originally invented the kit to enter into Microsoft's "Imagine Cup "—a global student technology program and competition. However, they soon realized it was more than a concept and worked with doctors and nurses in Uganda to make it a reality. The girls now have a woking prototype, but they are putting on the finishing touches before making it available commercially.
Now all they need is funding. "One of our major setbacks is shortage of funds to import the hardware we want to use," said Margaret. "We have been funding the project with our own pocket money." Still, she says it's all worth it.
"To the women, mothers, and sisters around the world, your reproductive health is important," said Margaret. "That's why we decided to make this work, so that all those who fear to be stigmatized and fear to go see the doctor can check themselves regularly."
Once they get funding to produce the kit, the women hope to make it available in Africa and worldwide, which could help millions of women take control of their health.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.