Five Students Just Created a Game-Changing App for Women’s Health in Uganda

The app allows women to self-test for bacterial vaginosis, which affects almost 50 percent of females in rural Uganda.

The team, from left: Margaret Nanyombi, Jackline Namanda, Esther Ndagire, and Pauline Nairuba. Bridget Mendoza is not pictured. (Photo: Courtesy Margaret Nanyombi)

Dec 7, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist currently based in Uganda.

Like many women around the world, Margaret Nanyombi dreads going to the gynecologist.

“The thought of having to go to a doctor and they say, ‘Open your legs, we want to check this,’ and them putting things inside your body…it’s also quite uncomfortable,” says the IT student in her final semester at Kampala, Uganda’s Makerere University.

“Medical services are quite expensive here, so most people only wait until their sicknesses worsen to seek medical attention,” adds 25-year-old Nanyombi, who spent nearly $27 the last time she went to her doctor for an infection. That’s a lot of money for an unemployed student, and for many other Ugandan women, as the average income of a working Ugandan is $33 a month, less for those living in rural areas.

But now, Nanyombi and her fellow female university students are pioneering an app that allows women to self-test for bacterial vaginosis. The infection, affecting millions of women worldwide—with prevalence rates in rural Uganda as high as 50 percent according to one study—is caused when too much of a type of bacteria changes the normal balance of vaginal bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

BV can increase a woman’s chances of contracting HIV, which has a prevalence rate of just over 8 percent for Ugandan women if they have sex with someone infected with the virus, plus chlamydia and gonorrhea, which can often lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause infertility. But BV doesn’t always present symptoms.

Some research has also demonstrated a link between the infection and the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer, labeled “Uganda’s leading silent killer of women,” with thousands dying from the disease annually.

The decision by Nanyombi, the project’s team leader, and four other women—Esther Ndagire, Pauline Nairuba, Jackline Namanda, and Bridget Mendoza—to embark on creating the Her Health BVKit earlier this year is a tale encompassing Uganda’s upcoming female tech gurus and treasured friendships.

Initially, they entered the app in the Microsoft Imagine Cup, a worldwide student tech contest. They didn’t win. But then Nanyombi’s friend’s mother, Daphine, succumbed to cervical cancer in March.

“Her mum fell sick in 1991, but she didn’t follow it up until it was too late,” says Nanyombi. “It motivated us to tackle cervical cancer causes.”

Nanyombi turned to her university friend, software engineer, and mentor Bonita Nanziri.

Nanziri and her team had been working since 2013 on mDex, an alternative diagnostic tool for sickle cell disease—which according to one report, affects one out of every seven Ugandans—after losing a friend to it the same year. The app, still being developed, will empower nurses and doctors to carry out a test that would normally require a blood test, increasing services. The team was among the finalists in the 2014 Microsoft Imagine Cup competition.

Nanyombi was inspired by 24-year-old Nanziri’s progress.

“The thing about so many start-ups in Uganda is they don’t have funding, so you don’t see the point in going forward,” says Nanyombi. “But Bonita has been encouraging.”

(Photo: Margaret Nanyombi)

Nanyombi’s phone app works like this: A woman collects a urine sample in a clean cup and places the sample in the hardware. This sends a value to the phone and offers the user a diagnosis. The app lists nearby medics who can help with further diagnosis and treatment.

“You go and tell the doctor, ‘This is what the test is showing,’ and they can advise whether you should do another test or give you medication,” says Nanyombi, adding that BV can be treated with antibiotics and gels, though the CDC says the infection can return after those types of treatment.

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Its inventors have developed a Windows app, are working on an Android counterpart, and have an iOS edition in the pipeline. They are making the app more user-friendly by making it less bulky and easier to use, and hope that with funding it could be available in the App Store by the end of 2015.

The BVKit app will be a one-time purchase, but the women envisage the hardware will cost about $60.

For women who can’t afford this and live in particularly hard-to-reach places, Nanyombi and her growing team are hoping to partner with NGOs to eventually set up kiosks offering free BV information and regular testing.

“After going through this tragedy with Daphine, it will be a dream come true to have our app out there and reach every woman we can,” Nanyombi says.