UKZN’s Department of Public Health Medicine has launched a research programme – the DUALSAVE Female Genital Schistosomiasis (FGS) project – which will allow researchers to test an innovative new tool.
The tool is a portable, advanced but low-cost spectral camera that uses dual screening through spectral artificial visual examination to obtain a precise diagnosis of FGS, a disease – also known as bilharzia – which causes damage to female reproductive organs.
The programme is funded by the European Union and is a collaboration with partner institutions the University of Eswatini, the Durban University of Technology, Oslo University Hospital and the University of Agder in Norway, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique), the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the Bilharzia and Tropical Health Research Centre (South Africa) and QCELL (Greece).
The project is based in South Africa, Eswatini and Mozambique and an interdisciplinary team will adapt and validate a novel, multi-spectral screening tool linked to a computer for the poverty-related disease as well as cervical cancer, thus improving healthcare for vulnerable populations.
Local clinicians, including nurses and doctors, are able to use the tool, strengthening health services action against FGS.
According to the project researchers, about 30% of school-going adolescents and children – particularly females – contract schistosomiasis in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Around three hundred million women and girls in Africa are at risk of contracting FGS.
The Project’s South African lead Principal Investigator (PI) Professor Saloshni Naidoo said: ‘It is envisaged that this project will have far-reaching positive consequences as schistosomiasis/bilharzia is known to be a disease that can be managed once detected.’
‘With this new tool, gynaecological data is processed with advanced machine learning algorithms and executed in tablet or mobile phone platforms to recognise and grade affected areas. Researchers will be able to observe if there are eggs left behind by the bilharzia worm and also detect signs of cervical cancer,’ she added.
Dr Pamela Sabina Mbabazi, of the World Health Organization (WHO): Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases said: ‘We are fighting against time to spread information about this disease. The longer we wait, the more people will be chronically infected.’
Researchers will also develop and test eLearning education for healthcare professionals and investigate the acceptance of these procedures by affected women and healthcare workers. The WHO and Department of Health will be closely involved. The programme is expected to benefit doctoral and master’s degree students, researchers and health professionals who will receive training.
College of Health Sciences Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Professor Busi Ncama welcomed the project: ‘We as a College are happy about the project and are grateful to the European Union Horizons for funding the study involving collaborators from nine countries, including Oslo University in Norway and UKZN.’
Words and photograph: Nombuso Dlamini