Five scientific and technological innovations enhancing health in Africa

With a population of over 1.2 billion people, Africa accounts for 25% of the global disease burden. Bearing just 2% of the world’s doctors, its healthcare infrastructure also faces a number of challenges. The role of science and technology is fundamental in addressing these, and as such, a great number of exciting innovations are providing new opportunities on the continent. In anticipation of our upcoming Spotlight Seminar on ‘The Future of Public Health in Africa’, this blog highlights just some of the incredible scientific and technological innovations that are enhancing the continent’s health sector.

1) The Cardiopad: A wireless computer tablet that can diagnose heart disease

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease, are on the rise on the continent. By 2020, it is estimated that there will be 3.9 million deaths from NCDs in Africa. The prevention, diagnosis and treatment of these diseases are often hindered by a poor patient-doctor ratio. What’s more, limited access to medical services in rural areas means that patients have to spend time and money to reach health services.

To address the growth of cardiovascular ailments on the continent, a Cameroonian engineer has designed a computer tablet that can diagnose heart disease. A programme on the Cardiopad collects signals from electrodes fixed to the patients and then transmits the results wirelessly to a cardiologist elsewhere. The innovative genius of the Cardiopad means that experts can monitor patients with cardiovascular diseases wirelessly even from remote areas.

2) The Mamaope jacket: A biomedical smart jacket to combat pneumonia

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for half of all global deaths from pneumonia of children under the age of five – this equates to half a million each year. Pneumonia is difficult to diagnose as its symptoms are similar to those of malaria, and the correct treatment and expertise is often hard to come by in villages and rural areas.

In response, a Ugandan graduate has designed a biomedical smart jacket that is able to distinguish pneumonia symptoms by monitoring lung activity, temperature, and breathing rates of patients. The Mamaope jacket not only reduces rates of misdiagnosis by eliminating human error, but also diagnoses pneumonia three to four times faster than a doctor.

3) Deaftronics: Solar powered hearing aids

The World Heath Organisation estimates that the prevalence of hearing impairment for adults is 15.7% in sub-Saharan Africa vs. 4.9% in high-income countries. However, there is a shortage of audiologists and specialist centres across the continent. In Botswana, for example, there are only 12 audiologists and five audiology centres for a population of over two million.

Deaftronics have invented a solar-powered hearing aid unit called ‘Solar Ear’. Each unit comes with a digital hearing aid, a solar battery charger, and four rechargeable batteries. These batteries can also be used in 80% of other hearing aids currently in the market. Solar Ears are an example of an innovative use of solar power – meaning that the devices are relatively low cost to run, can be used by more people, and are renewable and thus environmentally friendly to maintain. Moreover, with reusable batteries, the hearing aids reduce the amount of visits patients have to make to health centres – saving both time and money.

4) Genetic chip: Bringing the benefits of precision medicine to the continent

As of yet, Africa’s genetic variations are largely uncharted, meaning that scientists know little about why people on the continent are more susceptible to certain conditions. For example, chronic kidney disease tends to develop in people twenty years earlier in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe.

The many benefits of precision medicine will now be brought to Africa with a genetic chip containing millions of genetic variations that are common on the continent. In previous genetic screening studies, only 3% of over 35 million participants were of African origin, meaning that precision medicine tools in the past haven’t been as effective as they could have been. The genetic chip will lead to a better understanding of conditions, and will improve the effectiveness and availability of relevant treatments.

5) Project Kgolagano: Bringing internet connectivity to remote areas using TV white space

A prominent issue with Africa’s healthcare landscape is a widespread lack of services. For many rural communities, it is difficult to access basic healthcare. In response, many rural hospitals and clinics can now access specialised care remotely.

To provide facilities in rural areas of Botswana with internet connectivity, Project Kgologano will use unused frequencies (TV white spaces). Significantly, this type of internet technology is low cost, and can also be operated off-grid using solar power. These connectivity and telemedicine services will allow doctors to communicate images to specialised medical facilities around the world completely remotely. It will result in more accurate diagnosis of illness, better patient care, and access to specialised medicine.

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