Marc Koska is the British inventor behind a revolutionary safe syringe. Here, he offers a diagnosis of the problems facing health professionals in Africa.
Africa is a continent in the midst of a healthcare crisis. In spite of interventions from governments, businesses and NGOs, something is still fundamentally wrong. As the stats show, the big picture is daunting. No individual has the solution but, by focusing on a specific problem, one can have an impact.
For Marc Koska, a British inventor and social entrepreneur, that problem was syringes. In the West, reusing a needle is inconceivable. Yet in parts of the developing world it happens daily, spreading disease and destroying lives. Realising that the best way to prevent reuse was to make it impossible, Koska designed the AD, or auto-disable syringe.
In 1984, aged 23, Koska was living on the Caribbean island of St Croix. At the time, AIDS dominated the headlines, and when Koska stumbled across an article that described how reused needles spread the disease, it acted as a call-to-arms.
At weekends, Koska crewed racing yachts, but it was his other job – making intricate murder scene models used in court cases – that held the key. He had no medical background, but his model-making work taught him to inhabit ideas in three dimensions. “When it came to designing the syringe, for three years I lay awake in bed every evening thinking,” he recalls. “I would just go into a state of being the plunger, or being the finger pushing it, working out what we needed to change.”
“In Africa, very basic building blocks are missing or running at a very ineffective level. I don’t think it’s any great wonder that they’re not doing very well as entrepreneurs or building factories.”
The answer, he concluded, was as little as possible. To succeed, his product had to be as easy and cheap to manufacture as existing alternatives. Arriving at a design, the next step was to popularise it. With $1.2 million of funding, SafePoint, the campaigning organisation that Koska also heads, orchestrated a whirlwind week of awareness-raising across India in November 2008. Before the campaign, the Minister for Health refused to see him. Weeks later, the same minister mandated the use of AD syringes countrywide.
Today, sights set on getting AD syringes into Africa, what is Koska’s take on the continent’s problems? “All I can tell you is what I see travelling around,” he says. “In Africa, very basic building blocks are missing or running at a very ineffective level. How do you feel when you have diarrhoea? My contention would be that’s how every African feels every day. I don’t think it’s any great wonder that they’re not doing very well as entrepreneurs or building factories.” How has that been allowed to happen? Is he suggesting a failure of political and social infrastructure? “That’s right,” he says, “[the fault lies with] me along with everyone else on the planet.”
The technology to guarantee safe injections exists and is affordable, so why isn’t it standard practice? It is because someone, somewhere is preventing it? “For me, the answer is transparency,” Koska states. “I’m not trying to stop people being corrupt. I’m just trying to shine a light on the ones being corrupt because that way we all know the truth. Then we can get on with [fixing] it.”