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How m-health is revolutionizing Africa’s health sector

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Africa has for years been lagging behind in more ways than one and has desperately tried to leapfrog into the modern age, a move that has wound up plunging several African countries into debt. Health care is just one of these ways.

This is due to several factors such as; rampant poverty, a massive and ever-growing population, corruption amongst government officials from top to low-level administration, poor infrastructure such as roads, its position on the globe, making it home to the nastiest bugs the world has ever seen.

The health sector is one of the most financially intensive sectors for governments trying to provide free health care and provide health insurance plans for their citizens. Despite measures taken to make health care cheap and accessible, a huge chunk of the African population still cannot afford basic treatment at these public hospitals, let alone private medication. Africa accounts for close to a quarter of the world’s disease burden, yet has 3% of its doctors, as noted by WHO in 2015.

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However, it is not all gloom and doom for the continent, particularly in this sector, since once again, as in alot of sectors, technology has slowly advanced and is in a good position to leapfrog the health sector. Several startups and organizations are actively coming up with digital solutions to solve various problems in the health sector. World Health Organization’s Africa director said, “Integrating technology into Africa’s healthcare systems is key to opening them up faster to the poorest and most vulnerable people.”

In Uganda, the introduction of mTrac (Mobile Tracking) is taking advantage of SMS-based technology to connect hospitals to the national drug chain. “mTrac has changed everything,” says Esther Mbambu, a nursing assistant at a local Ugandan health center adding that, the health centre used to take almost a month without drugs which forced them to turn away patients. The system has standardized drug management and operations by leaps and bounds.

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Cathy Mugisha, a Medical Records Officer at Mukono Health Center, observes that with mTrac, replenishment of depleted drug stocks is only a click away.

“We don’t have to spend money on fuel to drive to National Medical Stores just to inquire about drugs. We simply SMS and this triggers an immediate response that culminates in the delivery of medicines to the health facility.” She says that with the stable availability of medicine more patients are being treated at the center.

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Through mTrac, Dr. Eddie Mukooyo, Assistant Commissioner Health Services at the Ministry of Health in Uganda says they will be able to monitor and track malaria death rates, and the availability of ACTs from the national level down to the community.

Mtrack is an example of a model government-led mobile health initiative in an African country, taking advantage of the rapidly increasing cell-phone ownership rate. Uganda’s Matibabu founded by four Makerere University students Brian Gitta, Joshua Businge Mulessi, Josiah Kavuma and Simon Fred Lubambo aim to help treat Malaria using technology.

“Each of us have personally suffered from malaria multiple times. In Brian’s last experience with malaria, the disease progressed so far Brian was bed-ridden and the invasive sampling inspired Matibabu, for early non-invasive early detection,” Gitta, a co-founder told TechMoran.

Matibabu, Swahili for treatment is a Windows Phone Application for early, non-invasive malaria diagnosis with a phone and a custom piece of hardware (Matiscope). Matibabu diagnoses for malaria without pricking the body. Connected with a custom piece of hardware, malaria status can be known in a minute the team says.

“We also obtain statistics for malaria in the world, this helps us run a prediction model on the occurrences and effects of malaria. Such data sets are available for subscription. We also do from the sales from the hardware as well as partnership from malaria initiatives,” said Gitta.

According to the team, human health is a very intricate field, more so when using technology. You don’t want to have a number of people die due to imperfection. So the hardest part comes from the hardware building and production to ensure high accuracy. They says there only competition in the local market are used invasive techniques which they aim to disrupt anyway.

While all the traditional diagnosis methods for Malaria diagnosis require a blood sample to be observed under a microscope or molecular diagnostic methods, the Matibabu team says Microscopes cannot do early detection because of under sampling, while molecular diagnostics don’t give a count of plasmodium. Matibabu excels compared with molecular diagnostics because of increased speed and no blood sampling required, and can detect malaria early compared with microscope.

Matitabu has received a $12,000 UN women Empowerment Award and another grant of $1,500 from TechCON HESN. Recently, it won £25,000 (124 million Ugandan shillings) from the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

In Mali, the IKON project provides a solution to the lack of trained radiologists in rural hospitals by offering the possibility to send or receive x-ray scans and diagnoses over the internet. Telemedicine is one the major outcomes of the advances in communication technologies. This is the innovation that enables electronic communication and sharing of medical information over long distances. In light of this, Mali launched the IKON project which aimed to enable remote consultation of all radiological files requiring a specialist’s opinion. This involved the establishment of a computer network between regional and central hospitals. IKON was initially set to be applied only to radiology but may be extended to other medical specialties. This was facilitated by the increase in bandwidth in Africa at the time of the conceptualization and initiation of the project.

On the startup front, up and coming companies are using technology to improve access to medical information. One such company is Totohealth, established in 2014. The Kenyan based startup uses SMS technology to help reduce maternal and child mortality. The platform provides parents with information on symptoms and signals of illnesses to watch for in their children, from birth to their child’s fifth birthday. All registered users receive two SMSs each week: tailored towards the health of the child and another towards the health of the mother. The information contained corresponds to the parent and child’s profile. The startup piloted in Kenya, easily racking up thousands of users before expanding to Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe and DRC – Democratic Republic or Congo.

The potential of eHealth is limitless in a manner of sorts, but there are a few barriers to success in the sector. “What we need are more smart, rich people who are passionate about health care in Africa,”said Dr. Felix Olale, on a panel in 2014 at the Wharton Africa Business Forum. “What Bill Clinton and Bill Gates have done, what USAID and George Bush’s programs did, what the U.K government has contributed, those have had massive impact,”Olale noted. “But it comes down to smart people with a little bit of money and passion. We don’t have enough of those people —African people and those in government —among Africans themselves.” Dr. Olale is the CEO of Excelsior Ventures, which invests in the health sector in Africa, with headquarters in Nairobi and New York.

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