Imperial together with its UK and African partners showcased the transformative potential of digital diagnostics at the recent UNGA Science Summit.
Delegates at the virtual event on 14 September heard how the next generation of rapid, point-of-care diagnostics that are currently in development will transform healthcare in low resource settings in Africa, ensuring patients are treated appropriately and data is integrated for better public health decision-making.
Professor Aubrey Cunnington, Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial, who is part of the DIDA management team and coordinated the session, commented:
“Diagnostic tests determine many medical decisions, but most of the population of the African continent have little or no access to diagnostics. I’m really excited that we were able to bring together so many leaders in digital diagnostics for this event, in front of policy makers from around the world, to demonstrate the potential of these technologies to transform access to diagnostics and improve health.”
A growing priority
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is the main policy-making organ of the UN and holds an annual Science Summit to raise awareness of the role and contribution of science and innovation to attaining the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The importance of health diagnostics in the SDGs is increasingly being recognised, with the recent 2023 World Health Assembly passing a resolution highlighting the importance of diagnostics for improving health at a global level.
Each year, about 10 million people die from infectious diseases, including respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, diarrhoea, malaria and tuberculosis. Many could be prevented with early, appropriate treatment; but first healthcare providers need to accurately diagnose a patient’s illness. Most African countries, however, lack the resources and infrastructure to diagnose and track diseases and outbreaks. Therefore, digital diagnostics offer an opportunity to leap-frog traditional, expensive technologies and offer portable, accurate diagnostics at point-of-care.
A collaborative network
Stepping into this space is DIDA – an international, interdisciplinary network of researchers and innovators from academic institutions, not-for-profit organisations and commercial enterprises. Its aim is to develop innovative digital diagnostic approaches for infectious and non-infectious diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis and sickle cell disease.
DIDA member Professor Halidou Tinto (pictured right), Regional Director of the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé (IRSS), in Burkina Faso, commented: “This is an important initiative with a potential major public health impact for African countries. With the commitment of all partners, the DIDA network will provide necessary evidence to introduce innovative new digital diagnostic platforms for the diagnosis of infectious diseases, which can be implemented particularly in settings where current diagnostics fail due to sensitivity and/or specificity issues.”
Getting the message out
At the Science Summit, members of DIDA and those involved in similar initiatives shared their experiences and showcased how new diagnostic and decision support technologies can revolutionise healthcare in low- and middle-income countries – including underserved areas of Africa – bringing fast, accurate, cheap, and connected diagnostics and decision support to where it is most needed.
They provided insights into developing and testing transformative digital diagnostics technologies in Africa, which include point-of-care molecular detection tests for infectious diseases; artificial intelligence image analysis for diagnosis of tuberculosis and other diseases; and data-driven decision support tools for infections in newborn infants.
Event speaker, Professor Julie Makani (left), from the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS) in Tanzania and Provost's Visiting Professor of Haematology at Imperial, commented: “There has been unprecedented progress in diagnostics. Two examples are DNA-Based Diagnosis for COVID-19 and Sickle Cell Disease. The world has seen how diagnostic tests can be developed and deployed across the world to improve health. This session at the Science Summit at UNGA in September was an excellent opportunity to catalyse discussion with policy makers, funders, public and scientists.”
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