Experts, electricity ‘not needed’ for health innovations

Blood pressure check
COVID-19 has made it harder for many people to access routine health checks such as blood pressure monitoring. Copyright: rootsofhealth, (CC BY-NC 2.0). This image has been cropped.

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  • WHO compendium of innovations aims to help low-resource settings respond to COVID-19
  • Collection of tools doesn’t require specialists or electricity, says WHO
  • Grassroots capacity building crucial for scale-up — expert

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Easy-to-use equipment including portable respiratory monitoring systems and ventilators with extended battery life are among a collection of new health innovations identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) to help manage COVID-19 in low-resource settings.

The compendium of 24 new technologies also includes novel, simple items such as a colourised bleach additive that allows the naked eye to detect non-sterilised surfaces, to help improve basic hygiene during the pandemic, says the WHO.

New technologies are accelerating access to healthcare everywhere but they must be made readily available in all health facilities, fairly priced and quality assured, the health body stressed.

“There must also be a deliberate effort at capacity building not only for consumption of such technologies but also for knowledge transfer whereby people at the grassroots are equipped with the knowledge to maintain and even improve such innovations.”

Jeremiah Owiti, executive director, Centre for Independent Research, Nairobi

Adriana Velazquez Berumen, WHO senior advisor for medical devices, said: “WHO has been collecting innovative technologies that can be impactful at places where there is unstable electricity and a lack of specialised health workforce.”

She said the WHO had appointed a panel of experts to review the technical specifications, regulatory compliance, and technical management of such innovations.

“Many of the experts are from low- to middle-income countries and will provide more insight into the emerging technologies as well as help in collecting data on the use of such technologies,” she told SciDev.Net.

The aim of the compendium is to select and assess technologies that can have immediate and future impact on COVID-19 preparedness and response and offer solutions to unmet medical needs, according to the WHO. It said 15 of the technologies were already commercially available in some countries, while the rest were still at prototype stage.

One example cited was a solar-powered oxygen concentrator used to treat childhood pneumonia at a regional children’s hospital in Somalia’s Galmudug state.

Pneumonia accounts for 800,000 deaths per year and the WHO estimates that 20 to 40 per cent of these deaths could be prevented if oxygen therapy was available.

Berumen explains that the system, which was developed by a Canadian entrepreneur, uses battery and solar power to create commercial oxygen. She said the equipment was particularly useful at a time when COVID-19 has accelerated global demand for oxygen and made delivery of oxygen supplies increasingly urgent.

“The concentrator works to ensure oxygen is given in healthcare settings where oxygen is unavailable and electricity is unstable,” said Berumen.

“In this region in Somalia, for instance, it has been very effective in treating childhood pneumonia.

“It is expected that more units could be purchased in the future to support oxygen delivery and good patient outcomes.”

In South Africa, Tanzania and Bangladesh, a smartphone app that enables people to measure their blood pressure at home without the need for additional devices or equipment is currently being tested.

Studies are under way to test the product in different settings, with a view to using it more broadly in low-and middle-income countries, Berumen said.

According to Anuraj Shankar, lead researcher at the Eijkman-Oxford Clinical Research Unit in Jakarta, Indonesia, enabling anyone to asses blood pressure accurately with an already available device such as a smartphone opens the door to personal monitoring of many acute and chronic medical conditions.

“It is a massive leap forward in technology toward empowerment for wellness and crucial in a post COVID-19 world, Shankar said.

“The synergy with other point-of-care tests [tests done with the patient rather than in a laboratory] and the transition to digital health globally means optimal care for pregnant women experiencing hypertension, and will lead to more healthy mothers and healthy babies.”

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Jeremiah Owiti, executive director at the Centre for Independent Research in Nairobi, said the scaling up of emerging health technologies and innovations faced serious challenges, especially in low- to middle-income countries.

“We are not just talking about common problems like prohibitive costs of such technologies, or lack of capacity and human capital, but endemic corruption that ensures critical infrastructure such as roads and electricity supply are missing,” Owiti told SciDev.Net.

He believes that coherent policies are needed to cover the procurement, supply and deployment of such technologies at grassroots level.

“There must also be a deliberate effort at capacity building not only for consumption of such technologies but also for knowledge transfer whereby people at the grassroots are equipped with the knowledge to maintain and even improve such innovations,” Owiti said.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global desk.

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