Artificial intelligence to improve quality of life for people with haemophilia in Africa

Can artificial intelligence power digital solutions to support people living with haemophilia in low-resource regions? That is the question that led molecular biochemist, virologist and PhD candidate Awa Babington-Ashaye to propose the development of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot for haemophilia in several African countries. The innovative NNHF-supported project was approved for funding in April 2021 and is currently underway in partnership with Prof Antoine Geissbuhler, Head of the division of eHealth and Telemedicine of the Geneva University Hospitals (Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève – HUG).

NNHF AI Chatbot - Awa Babington-Ashaye
Awa Babington-Ashaye working at the development of the AI Chatbot

The idea of creating a chatbot app was inspired by Awa Babington-Ashaye’s early exposure to the challenges of people living with haemophilia. Her childhood friend, Dame Mohamed Yacine, is the former president of the patient organisation ‘Association Sénégalaise des Hémophiles’ (ASH), co-founded in 1989 by Dr Anta Sar. ASH members are highly empowered to raise awareness and improve the quality of life for people with haemophilia.

“The idea is simple: to offer people in African countries access comprehensive information about bleeding disorders in their local languages, help with first-line self-care, and provide data about their nearest centre in case of emergency,” says Mrs. Babington-Ashaye. “E-health can be a game-changer in countries where medical and educational resources are limited. Our AI chatbot will offer people instant access to accurate information and advice supporting awareness, education and assistance for people with haemophilia.”

The AI chatbot will be integrated in a web-based mobile phone for both Android and Apple iOS devices. Users will be able to ask their questions about bleeding disorders in voice or written mode, with the database continually improving through these interactions.

Content for the application database is being developed in close collaboration between Geneva and Dakar based on questions during focus groups run hand-in-hand with ASH, led by its president, Abdoulaye Loum. Answers to questions raised by people with haemophilia are validated by Prof Saliou Diop, a haematologist and Director of the National Blood Center of Dakar (CNTS), Prof Philippe de Moerloose, a haematologist and expert in bleeding and thrombotic disorders, and two medical experts, Dr Sokhna Aissatou Touré and Dr Diariatou Sy, both working at the CNTS.

“The importance of early diagnosis and care cannot be overstated with haemophilia, and access to information is the first step towards this goal. Working with local organisations like ASH enables us to best serve the bleeding disorders community by tailoring solutions to their needs,” says Prof Diop.

Mr Abdoulaye Loum and Prof Saliou Diop celebrating World Haemophilia Day in 2019.

Taking advantage of geographic proximity, the AI chatbot is being introduced first in Senegal and Gambia, followed by Ivory Coast. The languages covered in this first phase are French and Wolof. The last step of the implementation will focus on an English version of the AI chatbot in South Africa and Kenya, where the level of care is higher, but the need persists to expand knowledge of haemophilia. In parallel with NNHF-supported projects in all five countries, the AI digital solution will provide a complementary channel for information and support to foster awareness of haemophilia.

Gaps in knowledge are observed across the haemophilia population in Africa and represent a barrier to both people living with the condition as well as carriers. A paper published by the project partners in 2020 (‘Unravelling the knowledge, beliefs, behaviours and concerns of Persons with Haemophilia and their carriers in Senegal’, Babington-Ashaye A, Diop S, Geissbuhler A, de Moerloose P, Haemophilia, Wiley 2020;00:1–7.), concluded that adults with haemophilia lacked information on many levels: the transmission of the disease and its inheritance pattern, the prevention of related risks, home management of joint pain and bleeds, as well as the regular administration of clotting factor and other existing treatments. Carriers also lack answers as to why their child has haemophilia, how to take care of bleeds and pain, the severity of symptoms that should urge them to go the hospital, as well as risk prevention at home and in school.

The AI chatbot offers a timely solution to a growing need for quick and accurate information and especially taking into consideration that people with bleeding disorders are more reticent to visit healthcare centres or attend educational sessions in light of COVID-19. By providing an application with a user-friendly interface that is readily available 24/7 and adapted to the local needs this project has unlimited potential to empower people living with haemophilia and potentially other blood diseases in Africa and beyond.