Imagine being hit with a dangerously high fever hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital.

You live in a rural area, have little money for treatment or transportation, and don't have an easy way to physically get to the hospital.

When you're eventually able to see a doctor and take some tests, that's when he tells you some disconcerting news — you have malaria, your condition has already worsened, and now your treatment options are limited.


If only there had been a way to find out sooner, when more could be done.

The streets of Timbuktu in Mali. Image via iStock.

That's the harsh reality many people face in sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to malaria.

According to UNICEF, more than a million people die from malaria each year, and 90% of those cases of malaria occur in sub-Saharan Africa. What's even more heartbreaking is that the majority of those deaths are children under the age of 5.

Malaria also hurts the continent economically — Africa loses up to $12 billion every year due to a loss in productivity.

A close-up of the culprit. Image via CDC Global/Flickr.

Luckily, chemists at Ohio State University are developing a way to test for malaria without having to visit a doctor.

And all the patient needs is a piece of paper!

This would help people get malaria diagnoses sooner — if the test is positive, they know it's critical to go to the doctor, and when they do go, it would already be for treatment and not just for testing.

Currently, patients can take a Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) to find out if they have malaria or not, but the climate in Africa combined with the considerable expense of the test often prevent it from being an option. However, these are issues a new home test can address.

Image by Pam Frost Gorder, used with permission.

The man leading this charge is Abraham Badu-Tawiah, an assistant professor of chemistry and biology at Ohio State.

Having grown up in Ghana, he knew he wanted to come up with a way to provide an accurate diagnosis for people far away from a proper medical facility.

"Our main motivation is really to get to know whether you’re sick or not sick early enough so that we don’t wait or think it’s too late," said Badu-Tawiah. "If it’s just in the initial stages, you can actually take your time and do something to focus on getting well."

So how does this piece of paper work?

As a patient, all you would need to do is put a drop of blood in the reservoir, fold the paper in half, stick it in an envelope and then mail it to their lab. After a round of testing, you get your results. That's it!

Image by Pam Frost Gorder, used with permission.

The paper itself uses a special wax ink that creates a barrier to keep the blood sample in place. It's also charged with ionic probes that can tag the specific antibodies that act as biomarkers (basically, indicators) of a particular disease. Even better, the ionic probes aren't affected by light, temperature, or humidity and can keep the sample intact for up to 30 days — ideal for patients in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once the lab has the paper, they just dip it in an ammonia solution, peel the layers apart and put it in front of a mass spectrometer — the device that can find the disease biomarker and tell whether someone is sick or not.

Right now, the testing needs to be done in special labs because mass spectrometers aren't immediately available in developing nations and they're very expensive. However, smaller, less expensive ones are already in the process of being developed. So help is on the way!

It's also possible to use this device to test for certain cancers. In time, hopefully all of them.

In the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Badu-Tawiah and his colleagues state that they can test for any disease where the human body produces antibodies. This includes ovarian cancer and cancer of the large intestine.

But they're not stopping there.

"It will cover all kinds of cancer eventually when we advance in knowledge," added Badu-Tawiah. "What we need is to be able to identify a specific biomarker for each cancer."

The paper is designed to be very affordable at just 50 cents a piece.

Image by Pam Frost Gorder, used with permission.

And that number could go even lower once they enter mass production. Access for all, regardless of location, is incredibly important to Badu-Tawiah.

"Making the resources accessible to a lot of people I think is the solution. That’s why I came up with this idea to build a bridge and to connect the rural and the cities," he said. "This will be useful for a lot of people, not only in Africa, but in the U.S. and many other places. It will change lives."

The scientists are also working very hard to make the testing process less invasive and more comprehensive.

Image by Pam Frost Gorder, used with permission.

"Our next move is actually going down from blood to saliva and then to urine," says Badu-Tawiah. "We are really hopeful that within a few years, this will come to fruition."

They're also developing a separate method that is able to detect malaria, syphilis, HIV, and tuberculosis all on the same device.

Pretty amazing, right?

This type of research has the potential to change how the world approaches deadly diseases.

Just thinking about how a drop of blood on a piece of paper could potentially replace a long journey to a testing facility is an exciting development.

In places from Africa to the U.S., this kind of innovation could one day be available at the corner drug store. It has a long way to go, but the prospects so far are exciting.

In this instance, it really is the smallest things — like a 50-cent piece of paper — that can make the biggest difference.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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