Scientists Use Big Data To Fight HIV In Sub-Saharan Africa
South African researcher Dr Edith Phalane is using big data to see which are the most effective HIV control programs in sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of ending HIV/AIDS as an epidemic by 2030.
Phalane, who is currently a Research Manager at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the University of Johannesburg (UJ), says her latest project aims to harness big, complex sets of data to better understand local epidemics and evaluate the potential impact of HIV responses among key populations in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The current project I am working on employs data science; 4th Industrial Revolution principles; and computational and advanced statistical methods to harness big heterogeneous data on HIV related key population data,” she says, adding that one challenge is that she took on the role of research manager without prior professional experience in these fields of data science.
“So I had to immerse myself into the new possibilities and learn as I go, so it’s a learning curve altogether for me… it also means that we will have to collaborate with other researchers, and the process of identifying relevant people with the set expertise, and that have a similar vision is time-demanding, which may delay some aspects of the project,” Phalane says.
She explains that the project will have robust, long term, context-specific, up-to-date and comprehensive data that can adequately inform, accelerate and sustain the region’s HIV response amidst competing health priorities and devastating impacts of COVID-19.
Finding Answers and Inspiration in Sub-Saharan Africa
Phalane grew up at Leolo village in Limpopo Province South Africa, where she finished her primary and high school education.
“It’s a beautiful village surrounded by hills, mountains, and flowing rivers that run through the village,” she says, “I started my research career journey when I enrolled for my Masters of Health Sciences in Physiology at (South Africa’s) Northwest University.”
Phalane says she has now transitioned from cardiovascular physiology into epidemiology and public health to focus on infectious diseases.
“I am now on a career trajectory to become an independent researcher that is aimed at tackling epidemics in Africa,” she says, adding that global solutions to global challenges such as pandemics cannot be done by one country or region alone, it needs collaborative actions.
“As an early-career researcher in the Global South, I need to contribute to the knowledge generation that brings solutions to the global challenges because it’s my social responsibility and my research work on HIV responses among the key population is of global public health concern,” she says, “Moreover, HIV continues to disproportionately affect sub-Saharan Africa, with the highest HIV infections occurring in SSA – and new infections being highest among women of reproductive age.
Phalane says as women scientist in the Global South, she feels it is important to raise her voice and give Africa perspectives and solutions when it comes to the HIV responses in Africa because of the differences that exist within and across countries.
“If we can win with addressing HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, it will make a huge difference on the global scale since the region contributes largely to the global HIV infections,” she says.
Another researcher in the Global South using big data to solve big problems is Junaid Nabi, a physician-turned-entrepreneur raised in Kashmir.
Nabi is part of a team using big data and machine learning to help detect useful patterns in the tsunami of public health data generated world-wide by the COVID-19 crisis and do what he can for those back home.