By Mary Hearty

The Aga Khan University (AKU) has received a $6.5 million grant from the US National Institute of Health (NIH) to develop a first-ever highly advanced data science hub which will use artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other emerging technologies to improve health and care delivery in local communities in East Africa.

Utilizing Health Information for Meaningful impact in East Africa through Data Science (UZIMA-DS) will leverage data science to proactively avoid adverse outcomes in maternal and newborn health and mental health.

In addition, UZIMA-DS will support machine learning, an application of artificial intelligence (AI), to identify creative solutions to aid health service providers and policymakers within resource constrained environments.

Professor Amina Abubakar, Co-Principal Investigator and Director of the Institute for Human Development at AKU said early identification and intervention are critical to a good prognosis for all health conditions. However, in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) there is shortage of tools that can be used for early identification of women, children, and young adults at risk of poor physical and mental health.

Therefore, “UZIMA-DS will be a game changer in two ways. First, we will leverage existing data to develop tools and models that can aid early identification of at-risk populations. Second, we will build the capacity of young Kenyan scientists through post-doctoral and PhD fellowships to use large data to inform health policies and practice.” Professor Abubakar stated.

This program will be led by AKU with partners in Kenya, the US and Canada. The collaborating institutions include the University of Michigan, the Kenya Medical Research Institute/Wellcome Trust Research Programme, and the University of Ottawa.

Professor Akbar Waljee, Co-Principal Investigator and Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan (U-M) said: “I am honored to be working with Professor Abubakar and her colleagues at AKU who share my passion for leveraging AI and machine learning to impact health equity and improve people’s lives.”

The U-M is the top-ranked public research university in the US by research volume. The U-M Center for Global Health Equity provided seed funding to support the initial partnership, which has potentially far-reaching implications for a technology previously associated primarily with high-resource settings.

Dr Alex Awiti, AKU Vice Provost, East Africa said the application of emerging technologies and strategic partnerships are increasingly helping to address existing resource and information gaps in LMICs.

He added: “The Aga Khan University is privileged to be a part of this landmark initiative that will help the health sector leap forward in evidence-based policy and service delivery.”

The grant is part of the NIH’s Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) programme, which aims to leverage data science technologies to develop solutions to the continent’s most pressing public health problems through a robust ecosystem of new partners from academia, government, and the private sector. The Aga Khan University will implement the project through its Institute for Human Development (IHD) and its Medical College.

The Research Hubs formed out of this initiative will serve as a core component within the larger programme, which will also consist of data science and innovation training programmes, research on the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) central to data science health research and innovation in Africa, and an open data science platform and coordinating center.