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 against 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.
At a time when keeping hospitals and clinics running smoothly is more essential than ever, Ithaka – a digital chatbot-based platform created by Aviro Health – is this week being launched in Kenya as part of the country’s accelerated response to the pandemic. Ithaka offers patients access to HIV self-testing resources and the information they need to stay negative or to seek out treatment and manage their condition during these difficult times. The launch is the result of an ongoing collaboration with Population Services Kenya, who is distributing kits for free via community-based organisations – and at heavily subsidised rates through online pharmacies.
Working closely with community-based organisations, Ithaka was soft-launched in Kenya in May, and has already served over 1,000 patients, with over 700 reporting results and accessing testing certificates. Those testing positive are connected with resources to access treatment as soon as possible.
“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” said-Dr Margaret Njenga, Director 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.”
Poverty, social stigma and strained healthcare systems already present barriers to effective HIV treatment in Kenya, a population with an estimated 1.6 million HIV patients. COVID-19 adds even more barriers and complications. A critical health system priority during the pandemic therefore, as established by the WHO, is to find innovative ways to test for HIV and help patients access treatment after an HIV+ diagnosis.
With mobile devices and the use of communication tools like WhatsApp prevalent throughout the continent, Ithaka and similar digital innovations represent a lifeline. It is the goal of Aviro health 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.
“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, said Dr Musaed Abrahams, CEO of Aviro Health. “We are helping health systems to adapt to this change by continuing to respond with tools that address the core needs of the patients in innovative, affordable and accessible ways, providing empathetic and supportive healthcare at their fingertips.”
Even amid the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot allow the gains we have made in the fight against HIV be undone. 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.
About Aviro Health
Aviro is a design-focused health company that uses digital tools to improve the experience of healthcare. Our multidisciplinary team complements empirical observation with the qualities of empathy, narrative and meaning, to create significance and change. Since 2014, Aviro has been designing and implementing mHealth interventions that address the challenges at the interface between patients and health workers. Ithaka is Aviro’s digital platform for empowering patients and improving healthcare accessibility, providing engaging, remote, semi-automated support to patients that improves counselling, reporting and linkage to care; and improves efficiency and outcomes for health workers and programs.