Broadband used to address the malaria crisis

Last month I reported on the exciting decision made at the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development to build a truly trans-sectoral project aimed at the worldwide eradication of malaria.

The lack of proper communication systems in the areas affected by malaria – mainly Sub-Sahara – and the need for quick action are critical elements in the fight against malaria. These elements are the main reason there are still 750,000 deaths from malaria every year – mainly children. The disease is not preventable but if diagnosed within 24 hours it can be treated. The medicine itself costs 80 cents and the blood test needed to diagnose the disease also costs 80 cents, so these are no longer factors that prevent society from tackling the disease.

What makes the Broadband Commission an ideal platform to address this issue is the fact that broadband technology can be a catalyst in solving the communication problem, and that the Commission takes a holistic approach towards broadband as a facility to solve problems in relation to healthcare, the environment, energy saving, education and the digital economy. Current efforts towards the UN Millennium Development Goals have been fragmented and silo-based, which stops the upscaling of projects, while many of the issues the Broadband Commission is advocating can be addressed by effective broadband policies.

Malaria

Malaria is one of the biggest killers of children in Africa. A dozen years ago, all seemed lost: the standard medicine had lost its efficacy as the parasite became resistant; insecticide-treated bed nets were little used because they had to be regularly re-treated with the insecticide, a practical burden that poor villages could not manage; and diagnosis required that the mother and sick child trek to a distant clinic in the desperate hope the clinic had a functioning laboratory.

Progress in eradication has stalled. There were one million deaths in 1990 but very little further progress has been made over the last decade. Clearly a new approach – driven by broadband and smart technologies – is required.

Smartphones and mobile coverage are needed to address these issues. Already an application has been developed that allows you to put a drop of blood from a possibly infected child on the smartphone screen, which sends an electronic sample to a laboratory for testing. The results can be delivered back electronically within an hour.

This, of course, would make immediate life-saving treatment possible.

What is needed is for local community workers to be trained (this would take approximately one day) and to obtain a smartphone. Then, as long as there is mobile coverage, the disease can be attacked and basically eradicated.

The Broadband Commission accepted the challenge and what they have committed to actions aimed at –  within three years -  to supply smartphones needed – approximately one million of them – and connect  malaria-infested areas to mobile communication networks.

Broadband Commissioner Denis O’Brien, the CEO of Digicel, took a leadership role both within the Commission and the broader telecoms industry. His company operates in the Caribbean and the South Pacific, and he also agreed to look after the projects in Papua New Guinea and Haiti, two other countries where malaria is still widespread.

The initiator of the project is Broadband Commissioner Professor Jeffry Sachs, an American economist and Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals. He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ending extreme poverty and hunger. From 2002 to 2006 he was Director of the UN Millennium Project’s work on the Millennium Development Goals – eight internationally-sanctioned objectives to reduce extreme poverty, hunger, and disease by the year 2015. Since 2010 he has also served as a Commissioner with the Broadband Commission, from which he is now leveraging broadband technologies as a key enabler for the malaria project.

Jeffrey sees this as a commercial project, not a hand-out, but hopes that the industry will work at cost rather than on a for-profit basis. The funding of the project can be done through combining available investments from the many organisations already involved in the various elements of this initiative.

From his senior international position Jeffrey has agreed to organise the effort with the countries where the project will be launched, together with the World Heath Organisation, the World Bank, the African Union, national governments and local and regional health organisations. This will include recruiting and training approximately one million local health workers.

He already has secured the political support of the African Union, as well as that of the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group, which is co-chaired by the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, and President Paul Kagami of Rwanda. President Kagami is also the co-chair of the UN Broadband Commission and Stephen Conroy the Minister for Broadband in Australia is a Commissioner of the Broadband Commission.

Other critical partners represented by CEOs and Secretary-Generals in the Commission are UNICEF, the United Nations Foundation and, through them, also USAID and the mHealth Alliance. The last two joined forces to form a three-year public-private partnership called mPowering Frontline Health Workers.  This public-private partnership is specifically designed to improve child health by accelerating the use of mobile technology by millions of health workers around the world.

The mHealth Alliance, serving as the partnership secretariat, will coordinate and amplify the resources and expertise of ten founding members: USAID, UNICEF, Frontline Health Workers Coalition, Qualcomm, Vodafone, Intel, MDG Health Alliance, GlaxoSmithKline, Praekelt Foundation and Absolute Return for Kids. They are all going to play a key role in the overall project.

All of these close links are making it possible to cut through the bureaucracy and get the project off the ground. Also critical, of course, is leadership from the industry, and Denis O’Brian is clearly on a mission – talking to his colleagues in Africa as well as to the vendors (most of the larger ones are also represented by their CEOs in the Commission).

The plan is to formally launch the project at the next meeting of the African Union in January 2013, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The first female Chairman of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and the President of Ethiopia, Girma Wolde Giorgis, have already given their full support to the initiative.

Australia was instrumental in the original set-up of the UN Broadband Commission and its examples in national broadband and digital economy initiatives have been a catalyst in this process. It is great to see this initiative now moving into such important global issues; and it also shows the power of broadband in sectors such as healthcare, education, e-commerce, etc.

Imagine what is next on the agenda if all these impoverished communities have access to a smartphone and a broadband connection. It is mind-boggling to think about that.

Paul Budde

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