A new initiative will use digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence has been launched to empower community health workers, promising to help save the lives of at least six million children and women in ten countries by 2030. The Rockefeller Foundation initiative will be piloted in Uganda and India for its first phase that runs from this year to 2022.

It will be expanded to eight other countries by 2030 in regions with a high need or high incidence of maternal mortality and which can sustain the use of digital tools such as mobile phones and the Internet.

In Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are among the countries to benefit from the project launched on 25 September 2019. The Precision Public Health project, backed by US$100 million funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and partners, to prevent and treat diseases aims to use data for creating effective interventions to address the health needs of populations, especially mothers.

“Our biggest aim is to end mortality due to preventable diseases such as mother to child HIV transmission, polio and yellow fever.” - Manisha Bhinge, Rockefeller Foundation

For instance, linking pregnant women to health workers and bringing health facilities closer to where people reside to increase the number of people delivering in hospitals or assisted by a doctor or nurse. Manisha Bhinge, associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Health Initiative, says: “Our biggest aim is to end mortality due to preventable diseases such as mother to child HIV transmission, polio and yellow fever and we know that community-based interventions are critical.”

Bhinge told SciDev.Net that empowering communities to easily access services is vital to ensuring accessible, affordable and high quality healthcare.

“We want to ensure that community workers bring the right information to the right people at the right time,” explains Bhinge.

Interventions such as early detection of possible disease outbreaks, she adds, will ensure that key health crises such as cholera outbreaks are mitigated before they outstrip available resources as was the case with the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Rockefeller Foundation will partner with organisations such as the WHO, UNICEF, and governments to deliver the project. It comes as a WHO report published last month shows that in 2017 about 295,000 women died from pregnancy and childbirth, with 94 per cent of the deaths occurring in low-resource regions.

According to the Rockefeller Foundation, developing countries are largely missing out in data science and this could widen inequalities in health outcomes relative to developed nations. However, under the initiative, data analytics will be used to predict problems such as where there are sanitation issues that could lead to cholera and diarrhoea.

“We shall therefore navigate, and get tools in place to respond in time,” Bhinge says.

Jane Aceng, Uganda’s minister of health, said that leveraging data at community levels will help improve healthcare delivery in the country.

“Data can help us see who is in greatest need and hold ourselves accountable for meeting those needs,” explains Aceng. “We are looking forward to working with global partners, engaging technology companies, and translating innovations into lives saved and improved.”

Freddie Ssengooba, an associate professor of health economics and health systems management at the Makerere University in Uganda, cautions partners implementing the initiative to focus more on people rather than health systems.

“Health systems are important but can make an impact [only] if it brings health interventions to the people,” Ssengooba says, adding that data must be sent “back to the society where action is needed to offer working solutions to health challenges facing people”.

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