Healing Africa’s Beating Heart

How much of a threat to public health are cardiovascular diseases?

A. Z. : According to the WHO, 17.5 million people die from cardiovascular diseases each year. In Africa it is the second cause of death after malaria. In Cameroon, one out of every three women is affected by it, and 4,000 newborns die each year because of a congenital heart defect. Several factors explain this. The first is poverty. The recommendation is to do an exam every two years, but it costs a minimum of 15,000 CFA francs.1 The second factor is the small number of cardiologists: sixty for 23 million inha­bitants, and they are mainly in the big cities. The extreme lack of specialists condemns rural areas and their popu­lations. Finally, health coverage is res­tricted in Cameroon. Someone affected by heart disease requires a lifelong medical monitoring. As a result, insu­rance companies see them as a series of checkups and medication – thus a lot of money to lose – and exclude them from the reimbursement system.

How did you innovate to come up with a solution?

A. Z. : I was in the process of writing the dissertation for my computer engineer studies. Then, in 2009, I did an internship at the Yaoundé general hospital, where I met a cardiologist who trained me in the digital proces­sing of the heart rate’s signal. I started by writing software that would digitize the parameters of a cardiac exam to send them wirelessly. But it is hard to transport a computer from one village to the next. So I designed a tablet that connects to sensors. This lets you per­form an exam and send the data to a doctor for diagnosis. The CardioPad was born. The full kit, which includes the tablet and all the necessary equipment, costs 2,800 dollars today. In 2014, my company, Himore Medical, received a Rolex Award for this invention.

Who is this tablet meant for?

A. Z. : Right now, 64 tablets are in use in Cameroon and around the world. We are in touch with about twenty car­diologists that interpret the results and have already diagnosed seve­ral hundred patients. In Cameroon, our first clients are arrondissements2 and village hospitals which have no cardiology department. So we have partnered with the State to equip these hospital centers with CardioPads. It is a public-private alliance, without which we would not be able to move forward. We are also working with NGOs in Gabon, Nepal, Malaysia, the Comoros and Kenya.

Are you working on other projects at the moment?

A. Z. : Our CardioPad order book is well filled up. In order to make the device available to hospitals and patients with limited resources, we launched the Africa Cardiac Care program. For only fifty dollars a year, it lets you do an unlimited number of heart, glycaemia or blood pressure exams. We are also working on other medical and techni­cal projects. For instance, individual portable devices that patients could use at home to control and keep track of several heart values.

What would you say to a young person who wants to innovate in the health sector?

A. Z. : You have to be enthusiastic about what you do. That was the spirit in which I started the CardioPad. It then became a citizen’s duty towards the abandoned patients in my country. However, it is challenging to be an entrepreneur. To keep an unwavering motivation, you need much more than the lure of profit. The biomedical sector is also particu­larly technical. You cannot innovate in it without doing research: you have to roll up your sleeves to find funding and partners. Health problems are legion in Africa. There is extensive negligence and lack of commitment on the part of governments towards their healthcare systems. Most government officials stay in the big cities and have no awar­eness of the hardships in the villages. It is up to the private sector to try pro­posing solutions and to make a move towards the State to influence public policies positively.

By Timothée Vinchon

1. Approximately 27 dollars.

2. A territorial division of Cameroon.