By Mary Hearty

In an effort to promote the emerging health technologies being developed in Africa, the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) through the Health Tech Platform has launched the Emerging Health Technologies (EHTs) Media Award of Excellence to honor African journalists reporting on these areas to address key health issues in sub-Saharan Africa.

Speaking during the launch, Professor Richard Mukabana, Project Director of AFIDEP’s Health Tech Platform stated that the goal of the Health Tech Platform to promote open, informed and balanced discussions on the design and use of emerging health technologies in Africa cannot be achieved without the media’s active engagement in facilitating constructive discourse.

And so: “the Emerging Health Technologies Media Award of Excellence serves to boost the vital work of media practitioners across the continent reporting on innovations that could radically change lives,” Professor Mukabana said.

The launch was co-hosted by ScienceAfrica, a media house specializing in health and science communication.

Otula Owuor, Executive Director of ScienceAfrica said this award is a step in the right direction as it would help focus the science journalists to the emerging areas of science that are critical to Africa’s development but could easily be neglected due to their novelty and technical nature.

He explained: “The role of the mass media in effectively gathering, packaging and disseminating relevant information to various target audiences is evolving rapidly. In other words, science journalists have to continuously upgrade their knowledge and skills to remain competitive in what has become a global village.”

African journalists are invited to submit original print, radio and television features written or produced between 1 October 2021 and 31 October 2022. The winners will be announced at an event in December 2022, where they would all discuss their entries and the unique nature of health technology reporting on the continent.

The EHTs Media Award comprises of five key categories. These include: gene drive for malaria control and elimination, drone for improved health, artificial intelligence, genome editing, and microgrids in healthcare.

Gene Drive for Malaria Control and Elimination
According to the AFIDEP, a gene drive is a process in which an organism is engineered to bias the inheritance of desired traits from parent to offspring through sexual reproduction.

It is reported that genes usually have a 50/50 chance of being inherited, but the gene drive increases the chance to almost 100%. This effect allows the desired traits to spread rapidly through the population over the course of generations.

The 2021 World Malaria Report by World Health Organization highlighted the need for new tools and innovations to complement the current strategies for fighting malaria, citing that no single tool available today will eliminate the disease.

Consequently, this makes the development and testing of new tools with the potential to eliminate malaria urgent. Some of the key actors involved in exploring this new tool are: the African Union through its development agency AUDA-NEPAD, Pan-African Mosquito Control and Association (PAMCA), Africa Genetic Bio-control Consortium, and FNIH/GeneConvene.

The technology is currently being explored in Burkina Faso, Mali, Uganda, Tanzania, Cape Verde, Ghana, Comoros and Sao Tome and Principe.

Drone for Improved Health
The use of drones in healthcare includes delivering life-saving medical supplies, dispersing organisms for biological control, and surveying dangerous locations.

The inadequate road and communication infrastructure across the continent, particularly in rural areas have been notable barriers to healthcare delivery, and evidence indicates that drone application in health can contribute immensely towards improved outcomes.

Pilot projects on drones in Africa have largely focused on the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to facilitate the speedy delivery of medical supplies and medications to areas that are remote or hard to reach, while some have focused on their use for malaria control and elimination.

Some of the actors in the technology include Gavi, Ministry of Health of Malawi, Senegal, and Botswana, African Drone Academy and Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust, and African Leaders Malaria Alliance (ALMA) in Kenya.

Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is concerned with the use of smart machines to perform tasks typically ascribed to human intelligence, and includes the automation of decision-making, problem-solving, and learning activities.

The 2019 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) highlights four areas where artificial intelligence might play an active role in healthcare, namely, population health; individual health; health systems; pharmaceuticals and medical technology.

According to the AFIDEP, scientists and innovators are currently exploring AI tools and applications for the diagnosis and treatment of different kinds of cancer, as well as to maximize the impact of interventions aimed at controlling malaria.

Some of the innovation have been developed in Uganda and Ghana.

Genome Editing
This refers to various scientific techniques that enable changes to an organism’s DNA. At specific sites in the genome, these technologies allow for the addition, removal, or modification of genetic material.

The technology’s potential to improve human health is enormous. It may alter DNA sequences that are sources of diseases, or help prevent genetic disorders. Genome editing is being explored to treat cancer, blood disorders, blindness, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease and COVID-19, among others.

Work on genome editing in Africa includes a focus on high-burden diseases; the mapping of gene sequences that are responsible for diseases specific to people of African descent; as well as building the technical capacity of Africans in this area of research.

Microgrids in Healthcare

Microgrid is a self-sufficient energy system which relies mainly on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, harnessing their power to provide energy to a discrete geographic location, such as a college campus, hospital complex, or business centre.

The African Union High-Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) has recommended that Member States harness microgrid technology for their socio-economic transformation, including for health.