Healthcare Technology Featured Article

May 31, 2012

Saving Africa from AIDS, IT Centre Compiles Data to Track Success of Therapies, Halt Epidemic

Something truly wonderful is going on in Africa. If a researcher on a unique project is successful, it’s possible that people there, and other places, will stop dying of AIDS, and even becoming infected.

Senior Database Scientist Colin Newell is studying an HIV epidemic in a desperate region of South Africa – where one-fifth of the general population and more than half the young adults are infected – using document imaging technology to build a new database that could help people suffering from HIV/AIDS around the world.

"HIV is a global problem and we are just one research center in a worldwide effort to learn more about the disease. But HIV infections rates here are higher than anywhere else. It's possible that what we learn here about the transmission of the disease here may help slow the spread of the disease elsewhere in the world."

When you’re working to halt a health crisis, trusting your data is vital and in a part of the world where that’s about as easy to find as a penny at Times Square, Newell and his colleagues at the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies in KwaZulu Natal, have spent over a decade doing detailed field research and painting what may be the pandemic’s most deeply detailed portrait.

According to, as of 2010, there were 22.9 million people living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, increasing from an estimated 22.5 million people, including 2.3million children, a year earlier. The organization reports that the increase in people living with HIV could be partly due to a decrease in AIDS-related deaths in the region. There were 1.2 million deaths due to AIDS in 2010 compared to 1.3 million in 2009.  Almost 90 percent of the 16.6 million children orphaned by AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Avert.

During the time the Centre staff has been working in Africa, they have painstakingly transcribed millions of pages of field surveys into a computer file with the hardcopies, then the pages and pages stored in a warehouse a few hour’s drive—or a day’s walk—from their offices, according to company spokesmen.

Whenever data errors or discrepancies arose in the computer file, those same staff were sent back in time to the paper world, those warehouses full of filing cabinet upon filing cabinet, to search for the originals.

“When you’re gathering data in communities where running water is a luxury, unemployment is 75 percent and 40 percent of households cook with wood, errors are a daily fact of life,” according to a company spokesman.

“You have to understand that in South Africa we’re in a time-rich, cash-poor society, and very often it’s much more economic to employ more people rather than employ a high tech solution,” says Newell in an interview. “We’re about 10K from the next Internet user. If anything goes wrong, spare parts and tech guides coming to fix things is a very difficult job, so for many things we tend to go toward the low-tech solution, at the expense of making more mistakes.”

Until recently, the Centre’s technology was limited to the one computer file used to catalogue an endless stream of documents coming in from field researchers. But imagine what happens, an all too real possibility, when the computer malfunctions. The Centre IT’s staff came up with a solution: using a software product called Laserfiche that can store unlimited numbers of document images and retrieve any one instantly through a 13-digit survey subject identification connected to a barcode on each of the surveys.

Eighteen months later, half of the 15 million survey forms have been scanned into images stored in a new database connected via the bar code information to the old database.

Africa Centre may even be helping to set a trend not just for this beleaguered part of the world but for its many peer organizations, according to Christian Kyony, head of IT at the Centre. There are 45 similar outposts across the world, he says, generating 10 to 20 million pages of field surveys annually, according to the press release.

“Those organizations all have the same challenge,” says Kyony in an interview. “How to keep information archived in the source document and how to easily access the information in the source document. Our office is the first office to employ this technology.”

Sheldon Halgreen of Nashua, SA, which sold and installed Laserfiche at Africa Centre, is talking to medical researchers elsewhere in Africa about using electronic forms on computer tablets to monitor patient health in field research.

“Africa Centre is seeing great results from the software, and we’re happy about that,” Halgreen says. “But this whole effort could be greatly streamlined on a global scale with the full power of what this technology can do. Not only can this software improve the quality of health care in those locations, but it could save a great deal of money.”

"The end goal is not just research but also tracking the success of ATR therapies now being administered to thousands of people in all sorts of living conditions,” says Newell. “Armed with that information, we can better contain the spread of this disease under all conditions. As a center, we’re quite proud of what we do and we've managed to keep quite a number of people alive who otherwise might have been dead."

Edited by Rich Steeves

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