Academics at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) and Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Oyo State are pulling their weight to plug the crises in Nigeria’s health sector, beyond their primary duty: teaching.
One team is developing an artificial intelligence (AI) tool to track reasons people in hard-to-reach rural communities in northern Nigeria could not access quality health care. Another is exploring nanotechnology – which involves production of materials and objects from molecules or atoms – to prevent malaria, a deadly disease rampant in Nigeria and Africa at large.
At UNILAG, a team of three researchers led by computer scientist and senior lecturer, Dr Chika Yinka-Banjo, is building AI Gender Auditing Tool in partnership with Nivi, a United States health provider. The team collects data in the local Hausa language from both male and female residents, using a chatbot.
The data is being translated first into English via Natural Language Processing (NLP) model. The model enables accessibility of the data in other languages “so that if anybody wants to solve health problems in that region [North], they will know what the problems are and how to go about solving them,” says Yinka-Banjo.
Funded by a $100,000 grant by the United States Agency of International Development (USAID) and DAI, the project is due for completion in 12 months, beginning from July 2022.
“It is all about using AI to solve problems in the health sector. We looked at the crises and thought of North where most people don’t have access to medical care; they are under-served,” the team lead remarks.
“We want to see how these people can tell how they have access to health care around their vicinity in Hausa since most of them are not educated,” the scholar adds.
Many Nigerian healthcare facilities still rely on analogue record keeping and data collection, with most data compiled on Nigeria’s health care system done by global bodies such as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and World Health Organisation.
Nigeria ranks poorly in the world in terms of access to quality health care services, ranking 142 out of 195 countries according to a Lancet report which uses access and quality to health care as metrics.
Also in 2020, the Health Care Index that analyses the overall quality of the health care system ranks Nigeria 144 out of 167 countries with best care.
In Nigeria, rural communities are worst hit by the lack of access to quality medical services. The locals suffer a huge burden of disease outbreaks and high mortality rate. Most of the communities don’t either have health centres or the few available ones are poorly equipped.
“There are cases of untimely deaths, early pregnancies and a lot of people don’t even speak up,” Yinka-Banjo declares.
These pieces of information and more are obtained by the team in the local language via questionnaire administered through Nivi chatbot.
“Nivi partnered some health facilities in the North that help in getting all the information. From the data we have, a good number of women responded. A lot of people don’t get the care they need. People are suffering, dying in the process. When it comes to health, there are a lot of loopholes,” she adds.
Now at the point of building the NLP model from the data, the beauty of the project lies in its ability to make the data accessible in as many languages as possible, the researcher reiterates.
“For instance, if you take the tool to Kenya where Swaili is spoken, it will work. The essence of the project is to address lack of medical access. With more funding, we can also make it available on a website so it can be accessible to many people. The government can key into this initiative by supporting us with funds and sponsoring more research in this area,” she explains.
Building the model comes with challenges, but the team soldiers on, meeting day and night to brainstorm on thousands of data.
“We have to build and test to be sure it is working. That is where the challenge is but it is what we have decided to take. We know it is not an easy thing, but it is going to be beneficial at the end of the day,” the lecturer says, noting that as academics, it is their duty to solve societal problems.
LAUTECH team exploring nanomedicine to prevent malaria
Nanomedicine is the application of nanotechnology for medical purposes through the use of nanomaterials for diagnosis, monitoring, control, prevention and treatment of diseases.
At LAUTECH, 11 scientists are collaborating to fashion new methods of preventing malaria spread through mosquito bites. The team led by Prof. Agbaje Lateef, Head of LAUTECH Nanotechnology Research Group, has come up with nanomaterials that kill larvae before they metamorphose into mosquitoes.
Malaria is one of the leading causes of illness and death globally with Africa bearing the highest burden. In 2020, about 241 million cases of malaria were recorded worldwide, resulting in 627,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.
Africa alone recorded 95% of malaria cases and 96% of malaria deaths – 80% of which were children under age of 5. More worryingly, Nigeria accounted for 31.9% of malaria deaths leading three other African countries the Democratic Republic of the Congo (13.2%), United Republic of Tanzania (4.1%) and Mozambique (3.8%) with a wide margin. The four countries accounted for more than half of the deaths.
Malaria is caused by plasmodium parasites produced by the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. And of all the five parasite species that cause the disease, plasmodium falciparum is the deadliest and most prevalent in Africa.
Although there has been significant progress in fighting malaria, the gain is being threatened by the increasing resistance to insecticides for killing mosquitoes. The World malaria report says 78 countries reported mosquito resistance to at least one of the four commonly-used insecticide classes from 2010 to 2019, while mosquitoes resist all major forms of insecticide in 29 countries.
But the LAUTECH team has devised a new method to prevent malaria by fighting its source at the earliest stage with Silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) produced from cocoa pod husk extract (CPHE), an agro-waste.
“Our study demonstrated for the first time the utility of CPHE in the biosynthesis of CPHE-AgNPs with potential applications as antimicrobial and larvicidal agents,” Lateef says. “Larvicidal activity of CPHE-AgNPs showed potent larvicidal activities (70–100 %) against the larvae of Anopheles mosquito at concentrations of 10–100 µg/ml within two hours.”
The study shows the usefulness of CPHE as “a cost-effective and eco-friendly bio-resource in the green synthesis of CPHE-AgNPs.”
“We have developed different nanomaterials, including Silver nanoparticle, Silver Gold nanoparticle and they are able to kill lavae. If you are able to kill lavae you have truncated the life cycle of mosquitoes. Hence there will be no mosquitoes to bite. And because there is no mosquito to bite, there is nothing to carry the plasmodium falciparum.
“We have tested with 100% effectiveness. We started this work in 2015 and it has been a continuous exercise. The materials are now available. What we need now is support to develop them into products to reach members of the public,” the professor says.
Lateef further notes the tremendous contributions of nanotechnology to the health care system which birthed nanomedicine – innovative and more effective ways of delivering immunotherapy drugs, carrying out diagnoses and in vivo imaging.
“However, in all of these, toxicity and safety of nanomaterials must be established. Because, the same properties that enhance their activities can also make them to be toxic,” Lateef warns. “Synthesis of Silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) using a biological method is simple, reliable, nontoxic, and eco-friendly.”
The researcher appeals to the government to key into research and development in nanotechnology. He calls for the right policy that involves funding of research and engagement of all relevant stakeholders.
“We partner research bodies in countries like South Africa, Egypt, Asia and Saudi Arabia that have more sophisticated equipment. If you develop anything, it has to go through a whole of processes before it can be approved. But if the people in charge of approval don’t even have knowledge of what you are doing, they will just throw it away.
“The Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation has been working on having the policy on nanotechnology research and development in Nigeria which will drive all our engagements as a nation towards realizing the potential of nanotechnology. I hope that policy will be approved soon by the federal government. We need collaboration from agencies of government, private sector and civil society,” he says.