A resident uses a Nokia Asha mobile phone on a street in Nairobi, Kenya. Photographer: Trevor Snapp/Bloomberg
INTERNATIONAL - A free app that lets patients do quick health checkups on themselves is the centerpiece of a Gates Foundation-backed project to bring better care to poor regions of Africa, Asia and South America.

The medical app, also receiving funding from the Swiss-based Fondation Botnar, will be the first of its kind available in Swahili, and will also be offered free in Romania, tech startup Ada Health GmbH said Wednesday in a statement. The project with Botnar will open up Ada’s artificial-intelligence-enabled health advice to at least 2 million people in areas with little access to hospitals and providers.

Poor countries around the globe are suffering from severe shortages of health-care workers, according to the World Health Organization, with the most severe challenges in Africa, where the unmet need is forecast to rise most sharply. Ada’s software is designed to help patients determine whether they need care and put them in touch with nearby services when they’re required, relieving pressure on health systems.

“It helps you get a better idea of the medical condition that’s causing symptoms, and then helps you make an informed decision about next steps,” said Daniel Nathrath, Berlin-based Ada’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “In Tanzania, often the best option will be to find out where the closest community health worker is.”

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world’s richest charity, with $51 billion in endowment assets as of the end of 2017. While it didn’t give the size of the foundations’ support, Ada said it will use funding from Gates and Botnar to hire staff for the new projects.

Disease Prevalence

Ada will also research how self-checkups powered by AI can support health care in developing countries, with an emphasis on preventing potentially deadly epidemics. The software will be customized for certain countries by collecting data on the prevalence of diseases, like malaria, that are more common in the developing world than in the West, Nathrath said.

Founded in 2011, Ada offers a mobile-phone app that walks people through symptoms, provides probable causes and advises them what to do -- whether that’s to take an aspirin or call an ambulance. Currently available in English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and French, it’s been downloaded by about 5 million people in more than 130 countries.

Ada has received almost $70 million in funding, including a 40 million-euro ($46 million) investment round in October 2017 that was led by Access Technology Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. Competitors include London-based Your.MD AS, Kry of Stockholm and WebMD Health Corp. in the U.S. Another British rival, Babylon Healthcare Services Ltd., has an initiative with the government of Rwanda in which its app has been used to treat more than 2 million people.

Critics charge that the effectiveness of such apps remains uncertain by traditional scientific standards. Harvard Medical School researchers who conducted a head-to-head study in 2016 found that doctors were twice as good as symptom-checking apps at diagnosing patients based on their descriptions of symptoms and basic medical history.

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