LONDON — In many remote areas in developing countries, the people cannot afford or access expensive technology to treat disease and injury. However, innovation in health science extends not only to finding new cures but also to creating new techniques to give health care to people living in extreme poverty.
Young entrepreneurs continue to find ways to provide medical help to people that normally would not have it. The annual Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a company-run contest that gives 50,000 Swiss Francs to five innovators working to change the world, awarded three medical technology specialists for their inventions that give care to people in developing countries. Here are the stories behind each of the technologies and their pioneers:
1. Africa’s Medical Tablet
Arthur Zang, a Cameroonian IT specialist, used his talents to develop a tablet computer that can quickly detect heart disease and give results to doctors in Africa. Called the Cardiopad, the tablet attaches to electrodes and sensors that take electrocardiogram readings and measure heart health. The Cardiopad can then send the results to specialists in hospitals in major cities.
“My goal is to have 500 Cardiopads being used across Cameroon,” said Zang, who also wants to export the device abroad.
The Cardiopad has the potential to address heart disease, one of Africa’s biggest problems. According to medical scholars Anthony Mbewu and Jean-Claude Mbanya, 11 percent of total deaths in Africa are attributed to cardiovascular disease, making it the second-greatest killer behind communicable diseases. More than half of these deaths occur in patients between 30 and 69 years old.
Heart disease in the working population makes poverty harder to combat.
At the relatively low cost of $2,000, the Cardiopad will allow rural doctors to detect heart disease early and thereby save lives. The Cardiopad may be a helpful device to prevent deaths from heart disease not only in Africa but in many other locations as well.
2. Technology to Detect Infant Hearing Loss
Hearing impairments can have negative effects on young children in the developing world. By the age of six months, untreated hearing problems can lead to speech and even mental disorders. In India alone, about 100,000 babies are born with impaired hearing, and many parents in poorer areas cannot afford the expensive tests for their children.
India’s Neeti Kailas hopes to make the detection of hearing loss easier and more cost-effective. Using a portable, battery-operated system of non-invasive skin electrodes, rural doctors would be able to test the infant’s nervous response to sound and take action if the response is small or nonexistent.
While the system is still a prototype, Kailas will use the money to start clinical trials. Her goal is to get every child in India tested “so that speech loss can be prevented and [children]get equal access to education and employment.”
This technology would be beneficial for rural doctors in India and around the world.
3. Detection Tests for Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
While Zang and Kailas intend to use their innovative medical techniques to treat non-communicable illnesses, Saudi Arabia’s Hosam Zowawi wants to cure communicable bacterial infections, especially those associated with antibiotic-resistant strains.
The Middle East’s antibiotic policies do not address this problem well. There, antibiotics are often sold over the counter. “There is very little information given to the public [about antibiotic resistance],” says Zowari.
This can worsen the problem of bacteria resisting drugs, as excessive use of antibiotics leads to greater resistance.
Zowawi has worked to establish a network of Middle Eastern hospitals to monitor antibiotic-resistant strains of pneumonia and tuberculosis. To make this easier, he has developed a test that detects drug resistance within three to four hours, compared to existing 48-hour tests. Such testing would allow doctors around the world to detect and address “superbugs” as they appear. Given that the World Health Organization reported cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis in 92 countries, this technology could potentially prevent the spread of incurable and potentially lethal disease.
The continued innovation in medical technology will help eliminate treatable conditions in developing countries. As more young entrepreneurs invest in and develop health care techniques, the world will become a safer and better place to live.
– Ted Rappleye
Sources: National Geographic, NCBI, WHO
Photo: Rolex Awards