The Cell-Life Project: Converging technologies in the context of HIV/AIDS

Ulrike Rivett, Jonathan Tapson


This article presents the development of a technology initiative called Cell-Life which addresses the need for information management in the HIV/AIDS sector. Cell-Life started in 2001 as a research collaboration between staff of the Engineering Faculties at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Based on the need to support the primary health care sector in providing sustainable treatment options for HIV+ people in under-resourced and rural areas, converging technologies were identified as a possible solution for creating a ‘virtual infrastructure’ between the patient and the medical staff.
In 2003 the Government of South Africa clarified in its operational plan for HIV/AIDS that anti-retroviral treatment (ART) increased life expectancy of people living with AIDS. It also highlighted that provision of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) required the regular assessment of the compliance rate to the treatment plan in order to avoid side effects and multiple resistant strains. For under-resourced primary health care centres in disadvantaged areas, HIV/AIDS treatment, and particularly the requirement to monitor patients regularly, became a near impossible task.
Cell-Life investigated the use of readily available information and communication technologies to support the provision and distribution of medication, continuous patient monitoring, and communication of relevant data. By combining open source software, cellular technologies and a new approach to software design, a variety of solutions were developed that would take cognisance of the context of HIV/AIDS support and treatment across the country.
In 2006 Cell-Life became a not-for-profit organisation and was spun out of the University of Cape Town. The organization currently implements Information Communication Technology (ICT) systems that (as of late 2009) manage the dispensation of ARVs to approximately 70 000 patients, representing one-sixth of South Africans on state- or donor-sponsored ART. This article reflects on the development of Cell-Life as a case study for one of the first socially responsible research projects in the Engineering field at UCT and highlights some of the challenges, enablers and barriers experienced.

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