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Microsoft Research Battles Tuberculosis in India

Words by Leon Kaye

Bhiwandi, India, is 36 miles (60 km), a 90 minute drive and a world away from the Bollywood glam, malls and nightlife of Mumbai. Many of its 925,000 residents are migrants from poorer regions of the country who work within the power looms that support the city’s massive textile industry.

As we weaved our way through the streets in one of Bhiwandi’s poorest neighborhoods, the clickety-clack of the looms assaulted our ears while the dust and stench of garbage smacked our noses. Often described as the “Manchester of the East,” Bhiwandi’s working conditions include the predictable long hours, low pay as well as the cotton lint that settles in workers’ lungs--and can exacerbate tuberculosis from which at 2.2 million Indians suffered from during 2011.

One organization that has emerged as a hero in the fight against tuberculosis in India is Operation ASHA. One of the NGO’s important partners is Microsoft Research, which developed biometric devices to track the treatment of Operation ASHA’s patients. Such a partnership is important because the treatment for tuberculosis is complicated for the working poor: a United Nations directive from a generation ago requires patients who contract tuberculosis to visit a clinic often during a span of six months. This system, DOTS (directly observed therapy, short course), has become the mantra of governments fighting tuberculosis since 1993.

But for those who live far from clinics or work long hours, such visits are not the reality. As a result, patients who do not complete their treatment regimen can find that their tuberculosis transforms into an even deadlier strain called multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis, or MDR-TB--difficult to treat and often fatal. Biometrics, however, has led to a more seamless treatment of tuberculosis.

Once someone succumbs to tuberculosis, their treatment can require up to 50 visits to a clinic or hospital to receive treatment under the supervision of a health care worker. That equates to 50 days of lost workdays and wages. Operation ASHA turns that model on its head by bringing in the medicine, if necessary.

Once a government hospital refers a patient to Operation ASHA, he or she signs up at one of the NGO’s clinics and includes their fingerprint in addition to all of their data. Operation ASHA maintains these small centers so that they are located close to the patients they are treating. In the event a patient skips a dose, Operation ASHA’s system sends an SMS member to one of the local health counselor affiliated with the NGO. The counselor can then quickly walk to the patient’s home and give him or her the required dosage.

This system first rolled out in 2006, but just launched in Bhiwandi five months ago. Operation ASHA’s health centers, which are little more than a tiny storefront, offer a safe and discreet location at which tuberculosis patients can take their dosage--and if they fail to take a scheduled dose, someone comes to them.

For Operation ASHA, to which Microsoft Research donated the biometric devices, this new system makes their job easier by reducing the spread of an awful disease, especially in neighborhoods where extended families live in cramped, close quarters. Patients have the confidence they will complete their treatment and the discretion by which they can receive medicines helps shake the stigma of this disease. And in Microsoft Research’s case, partnerships with organizations such as Operation ASHA are a wise path to build local trust in emerging markets and motivate employees to come up with quicker innovations that not only contribute to an employer’s bottom line, but inspire social good.

Leon Kaye is currently exploring children’s health issues in India February 18-27 with the International Reporting Project. Based in Fresno, California, he is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credits: Leon Kaye]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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