Partnerships are key to addressing NCDs in Africa

by Githinji Gitahi

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Not too long ago, non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, asthma and cancer were believed to be diseases of the rich, or the very old, and mostly in developed countries. Today this is no longer the case.

Non-communicable diseases have become a global phenomenon with no boundaries in terms of age, social status or geographical location. They are no respecters of persons or places. And now they are the leading cause of death and illness globally, causing 63% of all deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

While Africa is still saddled with communicable diseases like malaria, water-borne illnesses, HIV and TB, the continent is now having to deal with the additional burden of a rising prevalence of NCDs.

In Kenya, for example, more than half of total hospital admissions are as a result of NCDs, and they are also the cause of 55% of all hospital deaths. For Kenya and other African countries, this only serves to strain further their stretched health system.

Prevention, early diagnosis and effective management of NCDs in Africa depends to a great extent on provision of information to encourage lifestyle changes, and increasing access to and use of health services.

Amref has been doing this successfully through community health workers (CHWs), whom we train and support to speak to community members in their households, giving them information and make referrals to health centres where clients receive diagnosis and treatment services. We further train health workers to provide basic care and help patients manage their conditions.

This leads me to my second and most important point—partnerships. We will not be able to address the issue of NCDs if we do not join hands and work together. While it is the primary responsibility of governments to respond to the challenge of non-communicable diseases, the complex nature of health, and in particular the challenges posed by NCDs, requires concerted action by all. Partnering and tapping into our unique strengths is the only way we will make meaningful, holistic and sustainable progress.

At Amref Health Africa, communities are a key partner because, if programmes and initiatives are to succeed, they must have ownership at local level. We also partner with organisations that have an alignment of purpose with us — that is, driving lasting health change in Africa. Our partnership in Kenya with Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda is a prime example.

Through this partnership, Takeda leverages on our revolutionary mhealth platform, LEAP, to train community health workers in Kenya on diabetes and hypertension awareness. The LEAP platform rides on the deep mobile penetration rates in Kenya, estimated at 95 per cent of the adult population, to provide CHWs with access to information and training directly on their mobile phones.

We also leverage on M-Jali, a digital record-keeping tool that allows CHWs to record health information in the community. The platform then links with the District Health Information System and enables us to go full circle by helping to improve diagnosis and treatment decisions at county and national levels.

Our partnership with Takeda has not only empowered community health workers with knowledge on diabetes and hypertension, but has also helped communities set up a first line of defense against diabetes and hypertension by changing lifestyles and minimising exposure to risk factors. Amref and Takeda are now working together to explore ways of leveraging on the LEAP platform to train CHWs on awareness of cancer. Awareness is key as four in five cases of cancer in Kenya are diagnosed in the late stages of the disease, according to the Kenya Cancer Registry.

This partnership also demonstrates the potential of innovation, especially digital innovation, to drive transformation. I am glad that innovation was given special emphasis at the Blueprint for Success Summit in Geneva this week. I was particularly impressed by the session on how drones will revolutionise medicine distribution. This concept could be useful in Africa where transport infrastructure gaps present an obstacle to effective distribution of drugs.

Coincidentally, the Malawi government, alongside UNICEF, last year began experimenting with the use of drones to deliver HIV test kits to children in rural areas. Rwanda also begun using drones for delivering blood for transfusion last year, allowing it to reach patients in remote areas who were previously inaccessible due to poor roads. We hope to see similar interventions across Africa, especially for NCDs.

Blueprint for Success was a great experience. It is my sincere hope that the resolutions that we made will result into action and tangible results. I am especially keen on seeing more partnerships being forged in our common endeavor to reduce the prevalence of NCDs in Africa.

Dr Gitahi is the Group CEO of Amref Health Africa

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