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Confronted by the serious and growing problem of tuberculosis infections in Nelson Mandela Bay – with a confirmed 10,271 patients infected – the Centre for Community Technology has designed an innovative mobile application to help communities and health authorities track, treat and stop the dreaded illness.

The centre has developed a series of successful digital health solutions in the past.

Professor Darelle van Greunen from the centre, based at Nelson Mandela University, said their DigiTB app was scheduled to be launched as a pilot version in the Bay in April.

She said the app would map the incidence and spread of the disease, monitor treatment adherence and assist healthcare workers to provide accurate information to patients.

“The aim is to use the app as a tool to reduce the burden of TB disease in South Africa with a pilot focus on Nelson Mandela Bay,” she said.

She said the project was funded by the Discovery Foundation.

“The DigiTB app will automate manual processes to enhance the accuracy of data and address the treatment process.”

Van Greunen said the app would provide cost-effective capacity building among community healthcare workers by providing them with reliable and customised applications, devices and the skills needed for patient support.

“Though TB is a medical disease it is not fought with medicine alone,” she said.

“The only means to curb this ever-worsening disease is to tackle it in a holistic manner.

“This is very difficult and, without the aid of technology and innovation, we are unlikely to see change.

“With 92% of the population covered by mobile phone coverage, the use of mobile technology as a tool to support disease management becomes an attractive innovation.”

She said after a person had been diagnosed with TB the patient would be registered on the DigiTB app and a community healthcare worker would be assigned to the patient to oversee them and ensure they were taking their medication.

“Directly observed therapy is the most commonly used method of drug administration, which means that the patient has to take the medication in the presence of a healthcare professional, who then records that the patient did indeed take the medication,” she said.

The DigiTB app uses biometric recognition technology (through fingerprints) to confirm that treatment was taken.

“If a patient misses a dose, an SMS is sent to the community healthcare worker assigned to the patient as well as the nurse at the relevant clinic to follow up within 48 hours,” Van Greunen said.

“The application will enable health workers to locate and track TB patients with regard to workplace, social environment as well as mode of transport used, and to plot the positions on a heat map to show where the higher concentration of TB patients are.

“This information will enable the department of health to focus its TB preventative efforts in high-risk areas.”

She said the app also included a “Frequently Asked Questions” section to enable community healthcare workers to counsel patients and their families prior to treatment.

“The aim is to eliminate misconceptions and ensure uniformity of information.”

According to statistics provided by Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Lwandile Sicwetsha, there are 1,251 patients with drug-resistant TB in Nelson Mandela Bay, 399 of whom have been diagnosed with total extreme drugresistant TB.

A further 1,048 patients who tested positive for TB were “lost to follow up”, meaning they are not being treated and pose a risk to others.

This article appeared in The Herald of 25 March 2019 written by Estelle Ellis

Contact information
Professor Darelle van Greunen
Director: Centre for Community Technologies
Tel: 27 41 504 2090