Technology and Humanitarian Assistance: Changing the Face of Women’s Health Worldwide

Sylvana Lewin | Monday, November 27th, 2017

Recently, we highlighted ways technology is being used to support relief organizations tackling the ongoing refugee crisis. In this edition of Technology and Humanitarian Assistance, we’ll look at innovative technology being used throughout the world to improve women’s health.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) around 1000 women die every day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. The lifetime risk of maternal death in high income countries is 1 in 3,300, but that risk rises to 1 in 41 in low income countries according to UNICEF. Sub-Saharan Africa faces the highest rate of maternal mortality with the lifetime risk of maternal death of 1 in 36, the worst faced by any region in the world. About two thirds of all maternal deaths per year worldwide occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. Not only do women in developing regions face higher rates of maternal mortality, but they also face lower life expectancy. A woman living in a high income country can expect to live 24 more years on average than one living in a low income country.

There are many factors that contribute to health challenges for women. According to the WHO, some are sociocultural factors like unequal power relationships between men and women, social norms that decrease education and paid employment opportunities, an exclusive focus on women’s reproductive roles, and potential or actual experience of physical, sexual, and emotional violence.

To put this into perspective, a 2015 study on maternal health and affecting sociocultural factors in Ado-odo/Ota Local Government Area in Ogun State Nigeria found that less than 17% of wives had involvement in family decisions, including those that are health related. Lack of involvement in decisions means these women have little control – even over their own health.  As well, 35% of women in the world have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner and/or sexual violence by a non-partner in their lifetime. Health consequences of this can include death and injuries ranging from bruises to permanent disabilities, STIs, unwanted pregnancies, PTSD, and more. Social norms that decrease education and paid employment opportunities for women in turn make them dependent upon their husbands, fathers, and other patriarchal figures.

Photo: USAID/Alison Bird

Organizations around the world are working to combat these issues and make strides in improving women’s health. Here are some innovations in tech that are leading the charge.

3rd Stone Design: The Pocket Colposcope

Cervical cancer can often be prevented through effective screening and subsequent treatment of early stage lesions. However, prevention sources are scarce in many low to middle income countries due to cost, lack of infrastructure, and lack of appropriately trained personnel.

As a result, more than 90% of deaths caused by cervical cancer occur in women living in low- and middle- income countries. 3rd Stone Design is tackling this women’s health issue through their innovative Pocket Colposcope, which is a highly portable, cervical cancer screening solution for use at the community level. It works by allowing health providers to capture a high grade image of the cervix and conduct diagnoses by observing images in detail that was not previously possible. Ongoing clinical trials are taking place in the United States, Tanzania, Kenya, and Peru with more than 450 patients enrolled thus far. In 2017, new studies were added in Honduras and Zambia.

Ovee

Ovee was originally developed in July 2017 during the Public Health Digital Health AR Startup Bootcamp, which is a 6-week Lean Launchpad accelerator program in partnership with NYC Media Lab. Founded by Jane Mitchell and Courtney Snavely, the app is designed to help young women take control of their sexual and reproductive health. Through the use of augmented reality and artificial intelligence, the app is creating a safe space for women and girls to ask questions, alleviating anxiety around these issues so women and girls can learn about their body in a private setting.

i-Cut

At least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and an additional 3 million girls are at risk every year. The long-term consequences of FGM can include chronic pain, infections, decreased sexual enjoyment, and infertility. FGM can even have adverse consequences in childbirth, and it is estimated that an additional 1 to 2 babies per 100 deliveries die as a result of FGM.

i-Cut was created to address this problem that affects the health of millions of women and girls in the world. The app was created by Kenyan students Stacy Owino, Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Mascrine Atieno, and Ivy Akinyi in an effort to prevent this from being forced on girls. It connects them to legal and medical assistance, while also including a panic button that those forced to undergo the procedure can use to alert local authorities.

Carbon Monoxide Exposure Limiter (COEL)    

Household air pollution contributes to 4.3 million deaths every year. This can be even more serious for women, particularly when pregnant. Women in the developing world typically spend more time than men indoors or in kitchens. Not only can breathing in the household air pollution that is found in these environments affect the health of a women, but if she is pregnant it can also cause serious health complications for her baby.

Grameen Intel has created an innovative solution called the Carbon Monoxide Exposure Limiter, a smart wearable bangle that provides pre-recorded messages for maternal health and can also alert of the presence and level of indoor air pollution (including carbon monoxide) during daily activities like cooking. Storing 32 megabytes of data, the bangle is programmed to “speak” about 80 pregnancy wellness messages. Thus, the technology acts to promote maternal health twofold through alerting the wearer of dangerous indoor pollutants and providing education on how to stay healthy during pregnancy. The bangle is made of high quality durable plastic, lasts for ten months, and is water resistant. Currently, it is being piloted in villages across India and Bangladesh.

These innovations are making great strides when it comes to women’s health, but we still have a long way to go to ensure every woman around the world can live a long and healthy life. Continue to explore how technology is changing humanitarian assistance with us in two weeks as we look at technology being developed to fight world hunger and malnutrition.