disease surveillance

eHealth Africa renovates Njala University research center with CDC funding

eHealth Africa (eHA) in partnership with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has renovated the  Njala University research center at Tiwai Island, in a drive to support one-health surveillance activities in Sierra Leone. The project was funded by CDC, with the objective of improving knowledge and infrastructure capacity at Njala University research center to perform routine Ebola and infectious disease surveillance.

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Research began on Tiwai Island in the early 1980s, with studies on primates, other mammals, forest dynamics etc. This research was vital for disease and one-health surveillance activities as Sierra Leone, ebola virus disease outbreak was traced to bats and primates. However, over the years, the facility had fallen into disrepair and was unusable. Renovation of the Tiwai Island research center commenced in November 2018. eHA has now completed renovations on the entire campus including storage room; kitchen, meeting areas, and dormitories. The facilities were equipped with solar power, which now provides uninterrupted power on a daily basis, solar powered water supply in order to ensure adequate water supply during the dry season.

Those who had visited the Tiwai Research Center before now, would agree with me that there is much difference after the renovation. We are happy that this facility is now ready for use. Communities and stakeholders associated with Tiwai are very grateful. This was made possible through funding from the CDC and renovations by eHealth Africa.
— Dr. Lebbie, Head of Department of Biological Science, Njala University- Head of the Njala Research Center
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CDC has been working with Njala since the Ebola outbreak. CDC has a strong relationship with the Njala team and helping them to have more capacity to do testing to look for viruses, including the Ebola virus that caused the outbreak here. We are looking for other viruses that are in the environment so that we can know more about our environment, learn to live safely with it, and prevent outbreaks from happening. We want to prevent disease outbreaks, and we’re doing that by helping the people of Sierra Leone find those viruses themselves – to study them here so that they don’t rely on outside help. We have seen great success with Njala University and their team doing this work here. CDC is eager to continue to support that effort because we’re so impressed by what’s been done already.
— Dr. Brigette Gleason, Surveillance and Program Lead CDC Sierra Leone Country Office

These renovated structures go to benefit not only Njala University students and faculty and  Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS), but also international researchers.

We will be inviting international auditors who will be resident here to do research; and through that, job opportunities would be opened to the community.’
— Dr Lebbie

The Importance of High-Quality AFP Surveillance Data in the Fight to Eradicate Polio

Polio is targeted for eradication because the presence of the virus anywhere means that children everywhere are at risk. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) focuses on strengthening Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP) surveillance worldwide to detect and respond to the poliovirus, to build herd immunity to protect the population and to halt the transmission of the virus. The data on the spread of AFP is invaluable especially for polio-endemic countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria because it helps in determining whether they can finally be certified polio-free.

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There are four steps involved in AFP surveillance and the Auto- Visual AFP Detection and Reporting (AVADAR) project responds to the first step—finding and reporting children with AFP—in eight priority countries in Africa. In many of these countries, disease surveillance and notification officers (DSNOs) at the health facilities are unable to actively find AFP cases for reasons ranging from difficulty in accessing settlements to security challenges. AVADAR trains community informants to search for and report the presence and/or absence of children with AFP in their community, using a mobile application. The application also has an embedded video that shows a child with AFP so that community informants can better recognize an AFP case. This reduces the burden on the DSNOs and allows them to focus on confirming if the case is truly AFP or not.

How AVADAR works

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To ensure that AFP surveillance is conducted impactfully and that the AFP surveillance data collected is accurate, timely and of high quality, the GPEI defined five global indicators: Completeness of reporting, Completeness of case investigation, Completeness of follow-up, Sensitivity of surveillance and Laboratory performance.

Global Polio Eradication Initiative: AFP Surveillance indicators

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AVADAR was designed by eHealth Africa, Novel-T, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners, to contribute to the achievement of the above targets. Below are the measures that have been put in place to ensure the collection and use of high-quality data to track and reports suspected AFP cases, and to inform decision making for polio eradication.

  • Coverage: To decide where to site an AVADAR system, WHO carries out an assessment of the target country/districts to identify rural, hard-to-reach and underserved communities which are typically more predisposed to poliomyelitis. The AVADAR system, equipped with geospatial tracking capabilities is then deployed to community informants/ AFP reporters. This unique feature of the application helps to validate the location of the suspected AFP case, independent of the reporter.  

  • Reporting: The AVADAR application allows informants to deliver reports anywhere and anytime in order to prevent data loss and to ensure near real-time, accurate reporting.  The app is designed to be used by people with basic literacy levels and is available in eighteen local African languages for ease of understanding. A report is better able to provide insight and enhance planning or decision making when it is timely. One of the key weekly metrics captured on the AVADAR dashboard is the number of complete results that were submitted as at when due, thus ensuring that all informants are actively engaged. Informants are expected to look out for and report cases of children aged 15 years and below, who have any form of physical deformity on the limbs or arms. In the event that no AFP case has been sighted within a week, the informant must send a ‘no report’, to validate his presence on the system.  

    AVADAR has improved the rate of AFP reporting compared to the traditional system of AFP reporting. For example, between June 2017 and June 2018 in the Lake Chad Basin countries(Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon), the AVADAR system recorded 589 supsected cases against the 213 cases recorded by the traditional AFP Surveillance system.

  • Verification: Paralysis in children can be caused by several agents including the Poliovirus. After the community informants submit their reports of suspected AFP cases, trained health workers carry out further investigations to confirm if they are true AFP cases. The WHO has designated laboratories all over target countries that are certified to test fecal samples and isolate the poliovirus. AVADAR weekly reports show how many suspected AFP cases were reported, how many were tested and the number of cases confirmed to be true AFP cases. This sort of data measures the cost of a single confirmed AFP case, the prevalence and incidence of AFP in target areas, thus enhancing the quality of AFP surveillance data for decision making.

AVADAR dashboard

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Having data on the spread of AFP in a geographic location helps with planning towards its containment. Since Poliomyelitis is mainly oral-fecally transmitted, sanitization and sensitization of the environment and inhabitants respectively can help reduce the spread of polio.  AFP data gathered across different locations has been used in making an informed decision on determining the number of health workers that can effectively manage its spread to neighboring communities. On the contrary, no data or false data could lead to health workers focusing their energy in wrong locations thereby risking the spread of polio and the extension of its existence.

Without reliable and accurate AFP surveillance data, true progress towards polio eradication cannot be measured. AVADAR’s impact in high-risk countries across Africa demonstrates how context-appropriate interventions and solutions can transform disease surveillance and emergency management systems.

One of the most important features of the AVADAR system is the engagement of over a hundred community informants per county. They are trained and equipped for the first time to provide timely reports that can be accessed at all levels from the county to the national level and beyond, thereby allowing suspected cases to be investigated in an accurate and efficient way.
— Dr Sylvester Maleghemi, WHO Polio Eradication Initiative Team Lead, South Sudan

Increasing Sierra Leone's efficiency in disease detection with eIDSR

In a continued effort to increase the capacity of  Sierra Leone’s health systems, eHealth Africa (eHA) has partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  to support the government of Sierra Leone by increasing the early detection and reporting of government-identified priority diseases using the Electronic Integrated Disease Surveillance Response (eIDSR) framework.

eHA developed a mobile electronic Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (eIDSR) application in response to requirements stipulated by the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS).  This eIDSR app enables the MoHS Surveillance system to accurately record and share health facility-level information from the district to the national level. From health workers in hard-to-reach rural areas up to health officials in the major urban centers, eIDSR connects the health system to generate a clear and accurate picture of the health landscape.

In the first quarter of 2018, eHA introduced two new features to the eIDSR app; data approval and sms compression. These new features align with  Joint External Evaluation (JEE) as stipulated by the International Health Regulations (2005).) Since June 2007, countries—including Sierra Leone, have been making efforts to strengthen their core capacities.

Prior to  the introduction of the electronic data processing system, Sierra Leone’s Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (IDSR) system relied on a paper based process  where the disease surveillance data summary was compiled in a spreadsheet and then mailed to appropriate authority every Monday. This manual system helped to monitor diseases in Sierra Leone. However the time constraints reduced efficiency. The paper-based method was also prone to human error, resulting in questionable credibility and completeness of information.

Before the introduction of eIDSR, most National health information from the Primary Health Care Unit were written hard copy. It took a lot of time for data staff to capture written hard copy data into the soft health management system. Data processing with the paper based system was time consuming and error prone. Transitioning to eIDSR would improve the quality and timeliness of health information.
— Dr. Tom Sesay, District Medical Officer (DMO), Port Loko - Northern Sierra Leone

One new feature  implemented in the eIDSR app is data approval. In the past, health care workers who were responsible for submitting necessary reports and data would enter the data  and there was no opportunity for superiors perform data quality assurance. This sometimes resulted in erroneous data being sent to the national level, reducing the quality of data used for disease surveillance in Sierra Leone.

The new data approval feature now prompts the district staff to review and validate all data received from the health facilities before it is seen by other users. eHA also provides daily monitoring of the approval process and quickly resolves any challenges that may arise.

With this new feature in place and the support provided,  the quality of data used for disease surveillance is improved significantly and human errors are minimized.

Training health care workers on the new features in the eIDSR app in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Training health care workers on the new features in the eIDSR app in Freetown, Sierra Leone

One of the biggest challenges experienced during the roll out of eIDSR was internet connectivity. There are many  facilities that do not have internet access to upload their data on site. The initial solution to that challenge was to provide an alternative for the facilities to upload their data into the national server; that alternative was using Short Message Service (sms)  to submit their data.

In the first version of the eIDSR application, seven (7) SMSs were required to upload the eIDSR weekly reporting form by SMS. With this sms compression upgrade the number is now reduced to one.  The introduction of SMS compression has resulted in facility staff saving time needed to find locations in the community where they can have internet access or strong network connection for 7 SMS submissions. It also cuts down on costs as less SMSs are needed to complete the upload into the national server. Through the sms compression, health facility staff are not  likely to leave their facilities to upload their data. The few that might have to leave will not likely have to walk long distances to have their data uploaded.

eIDSR has built the capacities of our health workers most of whom had little experience in the use of smartphones. eIDSR has contributed to improving our interaction with our facility staff.
— Albert Kamara, District Surveillance Officer, Port Loko

eHA has now trained 142 health care workers at the Western Area Urban  District Health Management Team (DHMT) in Freetown, Sierra Leone. This training of trainers session was aimed at cascading the new upgrade to other health workers. These two new features in the eIDSR application are adding immediate value to Sierra Leone’s health systems, by simply automating work.These are best practices for future generations to uphold and retain.