Opinion: Digital Technology Could Help End HIV Transmission In SA

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Written by Staff

From Devex. Opinion by Patricia Mechael, principal at HealthEnabled, an Africa-based nonprofit that helps governments integrate digital health solutions into their health systems. She is also a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

South Africa has made significant progress in reducing its mother-to-child HIV transmission rate (now at 2.6 percent), but more progress needs to be made if it hopes to become the second country — after Cuba — to completely eliminate mother-to-child transmission.

Between 3.4 million and 4.3 million women over age 15 live with HIV in South Africa, while 310,000 to 370,000 children in the country are HIV-positive.

In an age when countries can register nearly every mobile phone subscriber — and mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous — it is no longer acceptable or ethical for the public health community to work with HIV rate estimates.

Real numbers can enable those who were previously invisible to become visible. By harnessing the power of digital technology to gather and send information, the public health community can use real numbers to more accurately measure incidence and prevalence of disease and provide more effective services to those who need them most.

Milestones that have often seemed impossible — such as reaching an AIDS-free generation in countries that have struggled most with the virus — are now becoming possible.

A new initiative called Faster to Zero will expressly use digital health tools to accelerate the end of mother-to-child HIV transmission — starting in South Africa and expanding to a second country in 2016.

Launched by HealthEnabled along with Knowledge for Health — U.S. President Barack Obama’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief through USAID and Johnson & Johnson — Faster to Zero will use proven digital health tools to identify HIV-positive pregnant women, start treatment for those who test positive, and ensure their babies test HIV-negative at age 1.

It is very promising to see that Faster to Zero will use real numbers to guide treatment, rather than estimates, so that data from these digital health tools will ensure women are receiving the right services at the right time to help the most at-risk populations become AIDS-free faster.

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, said an AIDS-free generation is not only feasible but also likely to come soon. “The world went from millions to billions and each dollar invested today is producing a $17 return,” he said. “If we frontload investments and fast-track our efforts over the next five years, we will end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.”

Overall, Faster to Zero and similar efforts are showing that monumental achievements in public health are possible when the right cast of characters uses the right tools to treat real people, represented by real numbers.

By collaborating across sectors and harnessing the latest digital technologies, we can sustain efforts in the long run and truly eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Read more at Devex.