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Gold’s Surprising Role in Malaria Diagnostics

By Dr. Trevor Keel, Head of Technology
World Gold Council

Malaria, a preventable and curable disease, continues to be a major burden, particularly in low-income countries. Despite significant achievements over the last decade, 2013 still saw an estimated 584,000 deaths, the majority of which were Africans under the age of five. Gold – and the companies that mine the metal – has an important role to play in addressing this challenge.

Most people know that gold is used in the electronics industry, but there are a number of applications where the metal plays an invisible, yet critical, role. One such example is how tiny particles of gold are used in millions of kits designed to diagnose disease.

These kits are called Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs), and are the mainstay of disease diagnosis in many parts of the world. They are affordable (generally costing less than US$0.50), reliable and, critically, straightforward to use. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 319 million such tests were manufactured around the world for malaria diagnosis alone. The vast majority of these kits contained a minute quantity of gold, which drives a simple colour change on the test strip indicating whether or not an individual is infected with malaria from a single drop of their blood. This simplicity, combined with a quick readout, makes such tests ideal for use in remote locations where healthcare infrastructure may be limited.

However, like all technologies, these tests can be improved. The World Gold Council has now entered into partnership with Global Good, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and Bill Gates committed to inventing, developing, and deploying commercially viable technologies that improve life in developing countries. In 2015, the World Gold Council will work with Global Good on technical evaluations of methods to improve the sensitivity of the tests, including reader technologies. Improvement of test sensitivity will bolster malaria diagnosis in resource constrained countries, and further gold’s role in this critical application.

Gold mining companies also have an important role to play. Not only do these companies mine the metal critical to malaria RDTs, but they also run healthcare programs in the communities where they operate and beyond, helping in the fight against this deadly disease.

On January 13, I was at the World Bank in Washington, DC to announce this partnership and present our work alongside David Bell and Kris Natarajan from Global Good. The World Bank works extensively in both the natural resources and healthcare sectors, making this the ideal forum to discuss the collaboration and some of the broader issues.

For more information on the value gold provides and its many uses, please visit our website.

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