By Megha Khandelwal, Villgro Kenya
The burden for communicable and non-communicable diseases has always been heavy on Africa.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) further lay heavy emphasis on need for health innovations to solve the acute healthcare issues in the region. The goals focus on improved health for all groups with priority for better access to maternal and child health, low incidences of HIV/AIDS, better healthcare delivery through innovations in diagnostics and as well as tackling of rise in non-communicable diseases, which all individually contribute to high death rates.
From Ban Ki Moon, United Nations General Secretary to Secretary General Dr Mukhisa Kituyi (UNCTAD), members of United Nations have emphasised the role of private sector in pushing the implementation of SDGs and the opportunity that they provide for business-led solutions to be developed and implemented to address the world’s biggest sustainable development challenge.
In the past, most efforts have been devoted to increasing access to healthcare services. Today the diseases and problem areas are much more complex, exposing the region to far greater health hazard. Though access to healthcare has improved due to large investments in technology, little has been done to promote scientific and technological breakthroughs required to address the complex diseases. The focus should be on investing in low-cost devices, which are affordable, portable, less dependent on human resources and training, and require less infrastructure and energy to operate.
Current focus areas:
Reduction in communicable diseases incidence rates
a) HIV/AIDS: Eastern and Southern Africa account for 50 percent of the world’s population living with HIV. Even after years of development aid focused on reducing this number, the region still has 48 per cent of the world’s new HIV infections among adults, 55 per cent among children, and 48 per cent of AIDS-related deaths. Thus, it is extremely important to focus on innovations that help reduce risk behaviour to prevent spreading of HIV infection and help in controlling the disease. Technological breakthroughs such as microbicides for better protection to those who are vulnerable to infection from their sexual partners, pre-exposure of antiretroviral therapy to reduce risk of HIV infection, other methodologies to increase patient adherence can significantly help reduce spread of the disease.
b) Malaria: Sub-Saharan Africa is still home to the highest malaria cases and deaths in comparison with the rest of the world. The African region accounted for 88 percent of the 438,000 cases in the world. Although the incidences have been curbed drastically and fatalities have been reduced however threat of vector resistance to insecticides is rising. Technological breakthroughs such as single dose for complete cure and new long-lasting non-chemical spatial mosquito repellent/attractants can significantly help reduce spread of diseases.
c) TB/MDR-TB: Though Tuberculosis are now curable via antibiotics, the long duration of treatment makes the compliance challenging. Left untreated, it develops to multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB). MDR-TB is becoming increasingly common and it is believed most cases of MDR-TB are now acquired directly, as opposed to being a result of failed treatment. Technological breakthroughs such as accurate diagnosis, shorter term TB courses, and biometric devices for tracking patients and compliance can significantly help reduce spread of the disease.
Affordable, portable and low-cost medical devices
The global diagnostics technologies currently available, unfortunately, do not meet the need of African markets. These technologies heavily rely on energy, time consuming, difficult to transport and costly. An accurate and timely diagnostic can help prevent spread of diseases and fatalities. In order to reach the masses, it is important to develop diagnostic technologies which are portable, off-grid, single platform to diagnose multiple diseases and affordable. There is also a need to focus on improved maternal and neonatal healthcare. The maternal and neonatal fatalities are caused due to various independent medical conditions and thus the current need to is develop low cost fully integrated medical suite with facilities including ultrasound, appropriate diagnostics, safe birthing kits and post-delivery care.
Curbing the rise of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs)
Years of development aids and work towards creating awareness has led to strengthening of healthcare systems, curbing communicable diseases in East Africa. However, economic growth, urbanisation and unhealthy lifestyle has given rise to another threat – non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular diseases etc. The cardiovascular diseases itself account for 35 per cent of the deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. For the time being, the efforts should lie in increasing awareness and encouraging people to live more healthy lifestyles. It is also important to provide affordable nutrient-dense complementary food for infants as many nursing mother may not have access to the required diet during breastfeeding period.
The need of these technologies and innovations provide a huge opportunity for social entrepreneurs. Looking at this need,
Villgro Kenya was started in early 2015, supported by The Lemelson Foundation, to incubate sustainable businesses in health innovations. Villgro Kenya is a replication of the Villgro model based in India.
Over the past year, Villgro Kenya has built its expertise in supporting innovators and entrepreneurs in health and life sciences sector. We support incoming entrepreneurs by building their model through coaching and providing access to right networking opportunities for growth. We invite innovators and social entrepreneurs who are equally passionate to work towards healthier Africa through breakthrough technologies listed above.
(This article draws its inspiration from the report ‘50 Breakthrough Technologies’ used to develop the guiding principle and technological breakthroughs required to address the healthcare needs of the region)