A new health tech hub aims to tackle effects of Covid-19 on fighting tuberculosis

A Kenyan patient affected by Tuberculosis prepares to take her medicines. Source: Keystone.

A global partnership to end tuberculosis (TB) has launched a platform for experts in the field to investigate new health technologies and the means for fighting the infectious disease.

With healthcare systems at their breaking points around the world and access to healthcare proving difficult during the coronavirus pandemic, those affected by diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) are left in even more precarious situations.

Covid-19 restrictions have had particularly devastating effects on TB responses, with millions more people expected to contract the disease as a result over the next five years, leading many workers in the field to look for new digital solutions.

Stop TB Partnership, a global alliance working to end the disease, is rallying its members behind a new online community that aims to speed up the development of new health technologies in the fight against TB, which kills around 1.5 million people each year.

The Digital Health Technology Hub (DHT Hub) will provide a “unifying virtual platform that brings together the organisation's expertise and work in the digital health technology space,” the partnership said in a statement on Tuesday.

It will also allow its 1700 partners, which include government programs, funding agencies, NGOs and private sector players, to share evidence gathered in the field and “provide technical support to scale-up these solutions”.

Although the organisation has been working in the health technologies space for seven years, Covid-19 has definitely fast-tracked this process, said Dr. Lucica Ditiu, executive director of the Stop TB Partnership.

“Almost every day, I learn from our in-country partners about how critical digital health technologies are and have been to ensure people affected by TB are receiving the proper care and treatment they deserve and need during lockdowns and with healthcare facilities being at their breaking point due to the Covid pandemic,” she said.

Some of the technologies that are already helping to revolutionise the fight against TB, and where the partnership is looking to expand, include diagnostics connectivity systems that speed up the delivery of test results, community-led monitoring tools, and AI-powered technology that helps with computer aided detection of the disease. Other solutions such as drones have proven helpful in delivering medicines in hard to reach places like the hills of Nepal.

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Speaking to Geneva Solutions, hub coordinators Jacqueline Huh, head of external affairs & strategic Initiatives and Zhi Zhen Qin, technical officer of TB reach, emphasised the importance of bringing health equity to the marginalised populations, bearing in mind that the 'typical' TB patient tends to be poor or have less access to healthcare.

Those affected by TB “tend to face a lot of economic, psychological and social barriers to access the care that they need,” Huh said. Digital health technologies can in these cases, for instance, help “bring the care to them rather than make them go to where the care is,” Huh added.

TB requires taking daily medication and during Covid-19, access to these have been difficult. A solution rolled out by the Stop TB partnership are technologies that allow affected persons to take medicines for multiple days, record them at home and send it to the health facility to record, rather than requiring it to be done by a healthcare professional. This helps to eliminate some of the barriers in access to healthcare.

Tackling the needs of those affected by TB through technology will require a “coherent and holistic approach, engaging with country implementers, global actors such as the Global Fund, NGOs and governments in piloting and scaling up technology by increasing awareness of how these technologies could be used,” Qin said.

We tend to assume these technologies need the latest smartphones. However, Qin explained that these health aids have been designed to meet the needs of the users and at times only require basic tools and services like “nine-digit phones with text messaging services”.

Although not all digital health technologies require the most high-tech gear to access them, there are still some challenges. As with most of the conversations going on around the world, the themes of data governance come into play. There are questions of ethics and those affected with TB have a right for their data to be protected especially when it comes to using these health technologies.

It is also important that barriers to Information and communications technologies (ICT) are eliminated in terms of both lCT literacy and access to these ICT infrastructures.

Covid-19 remains a force to be reckoned with and these vital technologies are standing up to the challenges posed to TB responses.