Aviro Health, a start-up supported by the University of Pretoria’s (UP) technology incubator and accelerator, TuksNovation, has launched a chatbot-based platform that offers people access to HIV self-testing resources, and the information they need to seek treatment and manage their condition during this unprecedented time.
The platform, called Ithaka, is the result of an ongoing collaboration between Aviro Health and Population Services Kenya, which is distributing kits free via community-based organisations and at heavily subsidised rates through online pharmacies. Ithaka was launched in 2019 in South Africa where live trials with leading HIV health providers (Aurum Institute, Doctors Without Borders, Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute) and research institutions, including Johns Hopkins, have shown the platform to be effective in supporting patients and promoting healthy behaviours.
“We wanted to use the Ithaka platform to support our self-testing work, as it offers users a holistic understanding of how to take HIV self-tests, access services and look after their health, regardless of their status,” says Dr Margaret Njenga, director of Population Services Kenya. “The chatbot serves as a digital companion, guiding the user through the process of HIV self-testing and thereafter providing support in accessing care based on the results, all while maintaining their dignity and protecting their privacy.”
With many health systems in developing countries already under financial strain, African nations are attempting a high-wire balancing act between their public health response to COVID-19 and the provision of many other health services, including the ongoing identification and treatment of large numbers of immunocompromised patients living with HIV.
“We recognise that COVID-19 has the potential to shift the way in which public health is delivered, including the way in which HIV testing is offered,” says Dr Musaed Abrahams, CEO of Aviro Health, which is design-focused and uses digital tools to improve the experience of healthcare. “We are helping health systems to adapt to this change by continuing to respond with tools that address the core needs of patients in innovative, affordable and accessible ways, providing empathetic and supportive healthcare at their fingertips.”
Aviro Health specialises in designing and implementing mHealth (mobile health) interventions that address challenges at the interface between patients and health workers. TuksNovation, which has supported the start-up since February 2019, provides specialised product and business development support, and enables technology start-ups to commercialise innovative technology with the potential for social and economic impact.
Poverty, social stigma and strained healthcare systems already present barriers to effective HIV treatment in Kenya, a population with about 1.6 million HIV patients. COVID-19 adds only more barriers and complications. A critical health system priority during the pandemic, as established by the World Health Organisation, is to find innovative ways to test for HIV and help patients access treatment after a HIV-positive diagnosis.
Working closely with community-based organisations, Ithaka was soft-launched in Kenya in May, and has already served more than 1 000 patients, with over 700 reporting results and accessing testing certificates. Those who test positive are connected with resources to access treatment as soon as possible.
With mobile devices and the use of communication tools like WhatsApp prevalent throughout the continent, Ithaka and similar digital innovations represent a lifeline. Aviro Health’s goal is to make user-friendly mobile services like these commonplace not only in times of crisis, but permanently – a way to use more efficient, digitally enhanced techniques to strengthen public systems and truly democratise access to healthcare for all.
“Even amid the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot allow the gains we have made in the fight against HIV to be undone,” says Dr Abrahams. Thanks to growing investments in self-care, HIV self-testing is becoming more accessible. With advances in digital technology in the health space, patients can now access testing remotely and still feel supported during the experience by receiving quality care and guidance throughout the process.”
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