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Jan 01, 2022
When COVID-19 upended the world 24 months ago, experts feared the mysterious virus could devastate Africa, the world’s poorest continent with weak medical systems, limited resources and densely packed, chaotic urban hubs. Instead, it has won plaudits for its relative success in containing the crisis. Africa remains the epicenter of myriad health challenges — but it’s also the unlikely laboratory for innovations that have brought the continent little-known victories against fatal diseases. Those gains hold vital lessons not just for other parts of the developing world, but also for rich nations whose health vulnerabilities have been shown up by the coronavirus. Read on for more!
1 - Lessons From Ebola
COVID-19 slithered past the West’s best medical systems to infect millions of people in advanced economies. Africa, on the other hand, was better prepared than most parts of the world — in good measure because of infrastructure, several countries put in place to deal with the Ebola crisis six years ago. That includes already well-oiled airport screening measures, apps to connect patients with the nearest health care facilities, public awareness and the ability to rapidly expand testing facilities. To be sure, African nations have tested less than most other parts of the world. But scientists believe it’s disingenuous to attribute the continent’s relatively low caseload to low testing alone. Africa’s track record of other medical successes suggests they might be right.
2 - Unlikely Champion Against HIV
At the start of the century, Burkina Faso had an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 2.3 percent, according to UNAIDS data. Since then, the landlocked West African nation has emerged as the world’s most successful combatant against the condition. By 2016, it had cut its HIV prevalence rate by 65 percent — the most by any nation. Unlike many developing nations, Burkina Faso has made significant domestic investments into the prevention of the spread of HIV. Instead of depending predominantly on foreign aid, the country pays for 60 percent of its HIV prevention program. The country has launched innovative programs to limit mother-to-child transmission of the virus. And its commitment to fighting HIV has spanned a range of regimes — from dictators to democratically elected leaders. Keeping health separate from politics works — Burkina Faso shows us that.
The tropical island paradise of Sao Tome and Principe is best known for its beaches, birds and brews from its coffee plantations. Now it’s gaining fame for tackling malaria better than most nations. Since 2014, the tiny nation has had zero malaria deaths — no other African country can make the same boast about the mosquito-borne disease. It’s secret? Money. The country spends more, per capita, on anti-malaria measures — $16 per year — than any other nation in the world.
Less than a decade ago, Nigeria accounted for more than half of the world’s fresh polio cases. Africa’s most-populated nation was also holding the region back, as the last country on the continent to have polio. That ended in August 2020, when the World Health Organization declared Nigeria — and Africa — polio free. Though cases have since been detected in the north, that’s been achieved through an epic immunization effort that saw 95 percent of Africa’s population inoculated with the polio vaccine. This was no shot in the dark.
5 - Bloated No More
Most children in Togo don’t have age records. So the nation’s health specialists use sticks to measure their height — and approximate their age. It might seem rudimentary, but it’s one of multiple innovations that have helped the small nation emerge, in 2017, as the first in West Africa to eliminate elephantiasis, where the body swells into grotesque shapes after a mosquito bite. More than 120 million people across 70 countries suffer from this disease. Togo is no longer among them.
Just 15 years ago, a devastating drought and locust attacks in Niger threatened to starve 2.4 million people, including 800,000 children. And even without those natural calamities, the country in the mid-1990s had Africa’s highest under-5 mortality rate, with 266 out of every 1,000 children dying before that age. Since then, it has battled political instability, food crises like the one in 2005, and terrorism — and now saves 175 more children out of every 1,000 than it did a quarter century ago, the most dramatic improvement by any nation in the world. Like Burkina Faso, Niger’s achievements are the result of firm political resolve embraced by multiple civilian and military regimes, all of which have emphasized and invested in mass immunization. One of the world’s poorest countries, Niger still has a long way to go in public health — but its gains show that money can’t buy you life. Determination can.
More than 5,000 patients undergo cardiac transplants each year. Once you’ve found a matching donor, these surgeries are increasingly routine. But when South African surgeon Christiaan Bernard performed the world’s first human heart transplant in Cape Town in 1967, the world’s cameras were on him — he was attempting something that appeared to defy nature. He succeeded and, with each subsequent surgery, managed to increase the lives of his patients by longer periods.
1 - Abasi Ene-Obong
Africa is home to more than 15 percent of the world’s population. Yet only 2 percent of the genetic material used by pharma firms to design their drugs comes from the continent — a shortcoming that means that cutting-edge therapies often end up ignoring the specific needs of African patients. Ene-Obong, a Nigerian doctor, is trying to fix that. His startup, 54gene — named after Africa's 54 countries — is building the world's first bank of African genes to support research that the West has long ignored. The company, just two years old, drew $15 million in series A funding in April 2020.
2 - Melissa Bime
As a nursing student, the Cameroon native watched helplessly as a mother lost her 5-year-old daughter because she couldn’t arrange blood for transfusion in time — when it was available at a hospital 20 minutes away. Today, Bime has done her part to help prevent such needless deaths. She has triangulated a unique network of motorbike taxis, physical blood banks and an unmatched database of donors to cut the average wait time for blood transfusions down from a week to an hour.
Two days after his birth, Nigerian graphic artist Virtue Oboro's son developed neonatal jaundice. The hospital — and other nearby medical hubs — didn't have phototherapy facilities, and the baby had to be given a blood transfusion. That experience — the baby survived — pushed Ororo into putting her creativity to a new use: designing a solar-powered, portable phototherapy crib that uses LED lights to treat babies with jaundice. She now sells the crib to hospitals across Nigeria, where unreliable electricity connections mean traditional phototherapy is difficult. More than 3.3 million children in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from neonatal jaundice.
4 - Prosper Ahimbisibwe
The Ugandan doctor is using smartphones to save lives. Most pregnant women in the East African country never undergo a single ultrasound scan — a simple screening test that could help identify risk factors early and cut maternal mortality. Currently, 375 out of every 100,000 Ugandan women die because of complications related to childbirth. Ahimbisibwe is trying to change that, with potentially pathbreaking technology that turns a simple mobile phone into a portable ultrasound scanner. This allows medical professionals in remote parts of the country — without access to ultrasound machines — to screen pregnant women early and address any complications before they become life-threatening.
From Africa to the World
1 - Innovation Ground Zero: West Africa
Terrorists strike, and you scramble for cover. You hide in one place but need to run to another. Injured, you call for emergency services, but the ambulance doesn’t know where to find you. It’s a problem that countries across the world grapple with — and in developing nations where road signage is poor, getting ambulances to patients on time is a challenge even in normal times. Ghanaian app SnooCODE Red could offer a lifeline. It helps ambulances and medical professionals pinpoint the location of a patient down to 10 inches, even when the person is on the move. It’s only one of a series of super innovations emerging from West Africa and spreading to other regions. Take Cardio Pad, a Cameroonian electrocardiogram kit that enables medical professionals to perform heart tests in remote regions and send them electronically to distant specialists — it has spread to Gabon, Kenya and Nepal. Yes, that’s the heartbeat of innovation you hear in West Africa.
There’s a revolution underway in Africa as disruptors at universities, nonprofits, and companies across Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Ghana and South Africa reimagine every aspect of the toilet value chain — breaking away from the West’s dependence on waterborne sewage systems. They’re turning fecal sludge into fertilizers and electricity, bricks and animal feed, monetizing bodily waste while helping prevent disease. Holy cr*p, indeed.
South Africa is the world’s HIV capital, home to one in every five of the planet’s patients. And even after transforming the lives of millions of people through antiretroviral therapy, the country has been unable to convince a vast majority of its young population to adopt ART. Now South Africa is trying an Alcoholics Anonymous approach to the crisis, with group therapy clubs meant to break down taboos associated with the disease and help patients bond with — and learn from — each other — in an environment free from moral judgment. The initiative is showing dramatic results, with an 86 percent increase in retention of ART therapy. It’s a model that could be applied to other stigmatized conditions in traditional societies, from Africa and Asia to Latin America.
How do you deliver medical supplies and testing kits to remote regions with poor connectivity? Road transport could take days. So Rwanda decided to take the shortest route possible — as the drone flies. Its government has linked with U.S. startup Zipline to deliver medical supplies to distant parts of the country. And amid the pandemic, it has ramped up those efforts, even as Ghana has turned to these unmanned aerial vehicles to drop testing kits to regions without labs and return the samples to urban centers with facilities.
Africa is where it's at. But how much information have you soaked up? Test your metal and send the correct answers to: email@example.com.
Which country spends the most per capita on tackling malaria?
Sao Tome and Principe
Which African health-tech innovation is now being used in Nepal?
How soon can you now receive a blood transfusion in Cameroon?
Which African innovation can help fight jaundice?
What percentage of genetic material used by pharma firms to design drugs belongs to Africans?
Which of these is not being produced using fecal sludge?
African Health Leaders: Making Change and Claiming the Future: It’s a long title, but this book offers the best insight you’ll find from leaders within the African health community on the innovations that have worked — and those that have not — in helping the continent fight back against some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Learning From the Best: This piece from the Brookings Institution, published early in the pandemic, captures the efficiency of Africa’s response to the COVID-19 crisis — and the lessons the world can learn from the continent.
Rachel’s HIV Revolution: Meet an HIV-positive Burkinabe woman who has made it her life’s mission to educate mothers on preventing the transmission of the virus to their children, in this powerful Al Jazeera documentary.
Moolaadé: Directed by iconic Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, this film will move you with its tight, dramatic yet simple story of a mother who’ll go to any length to save her daughter from genital mutilation.
Corona Alert: How to persuade people to follow medical science and groove? Listen to this catchy reggae song by Ugandan music star Bobi Wine — who’s also the principal political challenger to President Yoweri Museweni — educating a country that loves him about measures they must take to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Ready for socially distant dancing?
Actress Leah Remini takes us behind the scenes of her 35 years as a member of what she calls the "cult" of Scientology. Find out what the King of Queens star had on her checklist for a husband — and why she asked him about marriage the first time they met. Plus, what does she think the current political climate has in common with life in a cult?
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