On May 19 this year the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that the Zika virus had been detected off the north west coast of Africa for the first time. Tests identified this as the Asian strain, responsible for the birth abnormalities in Brazil. Only four months earlier, the National International Health Regulations Focal Point of Angola notified the WHO of an outbreak of yellow fever. The Ebola virus alone caused 3,100 deaths in Sierra Leone since 2013, and Lassa Fever outbreaks are a near annual occurrence in Nigeria.
The socioeconomic impact of disease in African countries (including school closures, decreased health service delivery, reduced provision of water and sanitation services, reduced agricultural output and increased levels of poverty) has led to sharp reductions in forecasted GDP growth and macroeconomic stability. In Sierra Leone the private sector lost 50 percent of its workforce to the Ebola disease; lost revenue is estimated to be $74 million, according to the World Bank.
At an emergency meeting to discuss the outbreak in Angola, WHO officials stressed the importance of surveillance in disease management. While disease eradication is the key priority for countries affected by devastating diseases, National Recovery Plans prioritize the restoration of basic social services and the recovery of economic activities as vital to reinvigorating the country. Satellites have a critical role to play in such recovery, and in relation to long-term disease management. Satellites can be used to trial new digital services; provide critical infrastructure and support resilience and disaster recovery, allowing societies to get back on their feet rapidly, scaling services to the most disadvantaged areas and enabling the most remote areas to be served by essential surveillance and response efforts. A recent Inmarsat-led initiative, for example, with funding from the U.K. Space Agency’s International Partnership Space Program (IPSP), demonstrates the potential for satellites to deliver inclusive healthcare systems and aid growth in Africa.
Inmarsat is working with international partners in Nigeria including Instrat, the Praekelt Foundation, the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), local healthcare authorities, and Dalberg Global Development Advisors to deliver maternal and child health services to 50 physically and technologically disconnected rural communities. BGAN Link Wi-Fi hubs have connected clinics in remote areas to provide access to digital health training content for use by local healthcare workers. To date, the project has reached more than two million women, families and caregivers. By partnering with local government, Inmarsat is able to deliver satellite connectivity devices, preloaded with health applications, to rural communities to help facilitate the collection of health data relating to newborn and child health in Nigeria.
The Satellite Applications Catapult is collaborating with Cayetano Heredia University in northern Peru to improve mobile healthcare provision in remote Amazonia through enhanced connectivity using e-health and mobile health (m-health) solutions. Supported by the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Prosperity Fund, the project will analyze and research how satellite technology can better support patients and practitioners in Peruvian communities to improve the quality of, and access to, critical healthcare services. Maternal, newborn and child health, as well as the Zika disease, will be prioritized.
As part of the Inmarsat IPSP project, digital economies experts, Caribou Digital, and the Catapult have developed STARHub, a digital platform to share knowledge on satellite solutions for development challenges. The platform can create communities of interest where learnings from projects like those in Nigeria and Peru can be shared with policy makers and other users, and connect them with service providers.
“Countries facing huge development challenges will only embrace the potential for satellite technology if we can convince them that not only has the cost of solutions dropped, but that it is possible to deliver a service that is relevant, flexible and effective. If we succeed, we will prove not only the potential of satellites to support rapid recovery but also to underpin many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals," says Sam from the Catapult. VS