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Change the world


This article appeared on bdlive on 18 February 2016 by Heather Dugmore.

THE new mHealth4Afrika (Mobile Health for Africa) project is the only Horizon 2020 project awarded to SA out of seven submissions from the country, recognition of its potential.

Prof Darelle van Greunen, director of the Centre for Community Technologies at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), with European partner IIMC Research Foundation, initiated and led the 200-page grant application that took 14 months to complete.

Horizon 2020 is the biggest European Union research and innovation programme yet, promising more breakthroughs and discoveries by taking great ideas from the laboratory to the market.

The Centre for Community Technologies is the only research unit at a South African university that specifically focuses on information and communications technology solutions for Africa, by Africans, in Africa.

The mHealth4Afrika project, which launched in November last year, is vast in scope and finance — a €3m grant over three years will support the building of a mobile electronic management system for patient and client data in public clinics and hospitals in SA, Kenya, Malawi and Ethiopia.

IT WILL initially focus on records and data for pregnant women throughout their pregnancy cycle until the newborn phase.

In SA and other African countries, where primary and public healthcare records are mostly paper based, electronic record management will contribute to more efficient healthcare management. The system will work on any device that can access the internet.

NMMU is partnering with several universities on the project — including Strathmore University, Kenya; University of Malawi; University of Gondar, Ethiopia; Ulster University, Northern Ireland; and University of Oslo, Norway.

"The DHIS2 technology platform we are using was originally developed by the University of Oslo and is the preferred health management information system used in 47 countries across four continents," says Van Greunen.

"Strathmore University in Kenya will be leading the development of the system for Africa. The system needs to be country specific. For example, in Ethiopia the system needs to be translated into Amharic."

She is confident the system will significantly assist in the prevention and early detection of problems during pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood, as health problems at these times are among the biggest causes of death in Africa.

A report on the Countdown to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals showed SA had reduced under-five child mortality from 61 per 1,000 births in 1990 to 45, but it did not meet the Millennium Development Goals target of 20 by December last year.

SA HAS made slow progress in cutting maternal deaths from 150 per 100,000 in 1990 to 140 by last year, against a target of 38. HIV and Aids accounts for 17% of under-five deaths, while pneumonia accounts for 14%.

If the mHealth4Afrika project succeeds in the three-year pilot project, it will be implemented in 14 other African countries and expanded to include all areas of public hospital healthcare.

The project is one of many information and communications technology (ICT) solutions Van Greunen and her postgraduate team at NMMU’s Centre for Community Technology are developing. They are also building a school health-screening app, which is being piloted over three years in the Eastern Cape.

Supported by funding from the Medical Research Council’s Strategic Innovation Partnerships funding programme, the app will be refined this year to integrate with the Department of Health’s systems, with the intention of taking it to 140 school health teams.

The aim is for all 2,000 school health teams in SA to have a system such as this for routine health screening — from checking learners’s eyesight and hearing to screening for communicable and noncommunicable diseases, and for health issues such as malnutrition.

The symptom checker NcedisoTM, developed at NMMU, is a cellphone app that assists community outreach workers in rural areas who do not have a nearby clinic or hospital. It guides them on responses if, for example, a person has an epileptic fit.

Van Greunen has applied for funding to have NcedisoTM, available in English, translated into SA’s 10 other official languages.

"Everything we develop at NMMU is open source and for the public good," she says.

Last year, 14 people in Willowvale, Eastern Cape, graduated with a computer literacy qualification from the Amajingqi Technology Centre in the rural town, which partners with NMMU and the DG Murray Trust. The graduates are now teaching computer literacy to learners at the computer lab established by the Centre for Community Technologies and its partners.

"The Willowvale community ICT programme is so successful because it has the full support of their traditional leader, Chief Ngwenyathi Dumalisile," says Van Greunen.

SHE has been focusing on developing community technologies since 1990 when she realised that if learning were to be part of SA’s democratic journey, it needed to head down the information and communications technology road.

She completed postgraduate degrees in computer-aided learning, distance learning and usability with her doctoral degree focusing on the experiences of end users who interact with technology.

Over the past 20 years, she has participated in numerous local and international trans-disciplinary partnerships on education, agriculture and health projects focusing on the user experience of ICT projects in low-income areas.

The Centre for Community Technologies also focuses on policy interventions aimed at lowering the market costs of technologies that hold significant prospects for the social and economic empowerment of Africa.

"We spend a great deal of time speaking to people in national government in order to align what we do with national and continental priorities," says Van Greunen.

"What we do in SA must also be transportable to our neighbouring countries and throughout Africa where we collaborate with numerous partners," she says.

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