THE state of health care in the continent has been under the microscope in the past few months. The most talked, written and reported thing about African health care systems is how disorganised and inadequate the services are, and how incompetent and insufficient the medical practitioners are. But is this really the true picture - or the only one?
Here are some of the bright lights in the health care systems in Africa:
Fighting sickle cell anaemia in Tanzania
Every year, 210,000 or 70% of the children born with the genetic disorder that causes sickle cell anemia are born in Africa. Tanzania is one of the countries in the world with the highest cases of sickle cell disease (SCD) and without proper care, 90% of these children die in childhood. Though there are hardly any systematic studies that have been conducted on SCD in Africa, with limited data on even the most basic issues, a bright light came along in the form of Tanzanian Dr. Julie Makani. Following a 4-year Wellcome Trust training fellowship awarded to Makani to conduct research in Sickle Cell Disease, the Muhimbili Sickle Cohort was started in 2004. Makani aims to create a better understanding of the condition and increase the chances of survival for children born with the condition through genetic research. Stationed at Muhimbili University in Tanzania, the programme is now the largest sickle cell disease resource center in the world.
Home based healthcare in Ethiopia
Kara Kebele is a poor settlement on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The population is fairly high, the troubles are many and the state of health care is terrible - with few health centres and inadequate drug supplies. Through the support of the African Medical and Research Foundation however, the residents are taking matters into their own hands. Some community members are being trained and sent out to make calls on the houses of the terminally sick and the extremely ill patients who, in the past, had to wait for months to see doctors. Those who have been trained can offer simple medical procedures like attending to fever, malaria and diarrhoea. They also advise family members on how to best care for the sick in their families. The families are educated on dietary matters for the sick, on how to prepare their beds and to anticipate and meet the needs of the sick. This system of community based health care provision is being used in other parts of rural Ethiopia.
Health-based mobile phone applications
Mobile apps developed by Africans are helping to fill the vacuum created by inadequate healthcare provision. Take Bud Doctor for instance, developed by students from the Multi-Media University of Kenya. The mobile application offers an online list of doctors and links patients with physicians to match their specific medical needs. Relying only on the mobile phone, Bud Doctor operates in a very simple way; the patients, regardless of where they are, can find specialists through text messaging, emailing or calling. They can make appointments, ask for advice and crosscheck medical opinions from different doctors.
The most commonly used mobile phone based healthcare solution provider in the region is however MedAfrica. The app covers both Kenya and Uganda, and by 2012 had links to close to 9000 doctors in both the countries. The developers partnered with East Africa’s mega mobile service provider Safaricom to reach the millions of subscribers. A patient in any part of Uganda and Kenya need only send a message with ‘Daktrai 1525’ to Safaricom and a doctor will be ready to offer his/her expertise.
Telkom Kenya also delved into mobile health, when in 2012 the telecoms company teamed up with m-Pedigree to check whether drugs in circulation were counterfeits or not. The app worked by verifying the serial numbers on the drug packets to ascertain their authenticity. The drug user only had to send a four digit code that would generate a prompt response at no cost.
Cameroonian engineer, Arthur Zang, was just 24 years old when he invented Africa’s first “cardiopad” - a system which transmits a cardiac signal over a mobile network, allowing heart patients in remote areas to access vital medical assistance.
Medical staff at the Bafia hospital are now conducting trials with the touch screen tablet that enables heart examinations, such as the electrocardiogram, to be performed at remote, rural locations while the results of the tests are transferred wirelessly to specialists who can interpret them. Cameroon has a population of about 22 million people, but with only 40 heart surgeons concentrated in Douala or Yaounde, the cardiopad would be a real lifesaver.
The Tutu Tester is a mobile clinic which brings facilities to test for HIV and other common chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension, to various disadvantaged populations in South Africa. Courtesy of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, the Tutu Tester comes with a trained staff of doctors, counselors and educators. It offers voluntary counseling and testing to people who have been left out of the main health care grid. HIV infections continue to be a big burden in South Africa - as of April this year, the number of HIV infections was 6.4 million and continues to rise. One of the main problems is that many people do not know their status and are not tested. Health care in Africa may still be in the woods, but it is not an all doom and gloom situation.