The technology fighting Rwanda’s silent killer of women
When Rwandan villager Lillian was diagnosed with cervical cancer, the 30-year-old feared that her life was over. But a new gadget aimed at patients in low-income countries offered her hope.
“The medical diagnosis was very scary; my husband couldn’t believe it,” Lillian — not her real name — told AFP.
“We had heard of people dying of cancer and that it was incurable, so it was a very scary moment.”
Her fears were not unfounded.
Cervical cancer is a notorious “silent killer” of women, but especially so in poor countries that lack affordable treatment and diagnostics.
In Rwanda, it is the most commonly diagnosed cancer, attacking 42 out of every 100,000 women, three times the global average, according to national statistics.
The stigma and fear surrounding the disease and its connection to HIV — a major risk factor for cervical cancer — means many Rwandan women are reluctant even to get tested.
And those who are diagnosed often assume that treatment is out of bounds, unless they live in a major city.
For Lillian, whose village is a three-hour drive east of the capital Kigali, the likelihood of emerging cancer-free, less than four months after diagnosis, seemed like a fantasy.
But in 2020, Rwanda decided to trial a portable device that treats precancerous lesions with heat and can be used in countries with limited access to advanced equipment or facilities.
“The nurse who treated me used a small gadget that looked like a gun. It is uncomfortable but not painful, even when it uses heat to kill the cancer lesions,” Lillian said.
– Energy-efficient solution –
The so-called C3 thermocoagulator is a pistol-like probe that uses battery power, meaning it can be deployed in remote areas without 24/7 access to electricity.
“The device works by applying heat to the cervix, which causes the abnormal cells to die,” Christine Musabyeyezu, a nurse at Kigali’s Remera health centre, told AFP.
Aimed at being a cost-effective alternative to cryotherapy, the traditional technology used in the treatment of cervical cancer, the device is simple to use, requiring minimal training for health workers, she said.
“At first we relied on cryotherapy to treat cervical cancer lesions, but this method is complicated, expensive and not easily accessible across the country,” Musabyeyezu said.
Cryotherapy, which applies a probe to the cervix to freeze lesions, utilises a lot of energy to ensure that the probe is cold enough.
The thermal devices on the other hand are energy-efficient, offering a week’s worth of use (around 140 treatments) before requiring a recharge.
The gadgets are now at the epicentre of Rwanda’s fight against cervical cancer, particularly in rural areas.
The Central African nation is among seven sub-Saharan countries that have adopted the device, made by a German company, WISAP Medical Technology.
– ‘Test early, treat early’ –
Health workers in Rwanda are also hopeful that the success of C3 will go hand-in-hand with a potential breakthrough in diagnostics.
Highly diluted acetic acid — vinegar — has become an established method for spotting pre-cancerous lesions on the cervix, which turn white in the presence of the substance.
However, human interpretation of the test can vary, which is where a mobile app powered by artificial intelligence comes in, boosting accuracy as well as speed.
According to Marisol Touraine, president of the international health agency Unitaid, which is supporting medical trials of the app in Rwanda, more than 300,000 women lose their lives to cervical cancer every year.
The vast majority of these deaths — a staggering 90% — occur in low-income countries “because they were not screened in time, because they were not treated in time,” Touraine told AFP.
The increase in the number of women coming forward to get tested in Rwanda is good news, said nurse Musabyeyezu.
“There is always a queue here of women coming to test for cervical cancer, more than for any other medical tests,” she said.
“This is a good thing because when they test early they can be treated early.”
Threat of US ban surges after TikTok lambasted in Congress
A US ban of Chinese-owned TikTok, the country’s most popular social media for young people, seems increasingly inevitable a day after the brutal grilling of its CEO by Washington lawmakers from across the political divide.
But the Biden administration will have to move carefully in denying 150 million young Americans their favorite platform over its links to China, especially after a previous effort by then president Donald Trump was struck down by a US court.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew endured a barrage of questions — and was often harshly cut off — by US lawmakers who made their belief quite clear that the app best known for sharing jokes and dance routines was a threat to US national security as well as being a danger to mental health.
In a tweet, TikTok executive Vanessa Pappas deplored a hearing “rooted in xenophobia”.
With both Republicans and Democrats against him at Congress, Chew must now confront a White House ultimatum that TikTok either sever ties with ByteDance, its China-based owners, or get banned in America.
A ban will depend on passage of legislation called the RESTRICT ACT, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate this month that gives the US Commerce Department powers to ban foreign technology that threatens national security.
When asked about Chew’s tumultuous hearing, spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre repeated the White House’s support of the legislation, which is just one of several proposals by Congress to ban or squeeze TikTok.
– ‘Prove a negative’ –
The sell-or-get banned order tears up 2.5 years of negotiations between the White House and Tiktok to find a way for the company to keep running under its current ownership while satisfying national security concerns.
Those talks resulted in a proposal by TikTok called Project Texas in which the personal data of US users stays in the United States and would be inaccessible to Chinese law or oversight.
But the White House turned sour on the idea after officials from the FBI and the Justice Department said that the vulnerabilities to China would remain.
“It’s hard for TikTok to prove a negative ‘No, we’re not turning over any data to the Chinese government.’ Look at how skeptical our European partners are about US companies where we have a strong legal system,” said Michael Daniel, executive director of the Cyber Threat Alliance, a non-governmental organization dedicated to cybersecurity.
Presently, the White House’s preferred solution is that TikTok sever ties with ByteDance either through a sale or a spin-off.
“My understanding is that what has been… insisted on is the divestment of Tiktok by the parent company,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday.
But that option is riddled with difficulties, with many experts saying that Tiktok cannot function without ByteDance, which develops the app’s industry-leading technology.
“ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok and the golden jewel algorithm at the center of this security debate is a hot button issue that will not necessarily be solved just by a spin-off or sale of the assets,” said Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities.
Proving the point, China has ruled out giving the go-ahead for a TikTok sale, citing its own laws to protect sensitive technology from foreign buyers.
That leaves a ban which would see the full might of the US government crush TikTok to the undeniable benefit of domestic rivals Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.
They currently trail TikTok, which is the most popular social media in the United States.
– Snapchat wins –
TikTok’s demise “will clearly benefit Meta and Snapchat front and center in the eyes of Wall Street,” said Ives, who believes the saga will play out for the rest of the year.
One unknown is whether a death sentence for TikTok will cost Washington politically among young voters.
Through a ban, “a democracy will be taking steps that impede the ability of young Americans to express themselves and earn a livelihood,” said Sarah Kreps, professor of government at Cornell University.
The lawmakers putting the Tiktok CEO over the coals minimized the danger of political blowback.
“I want to say this to all the teenagers… who think we’re just old and out of touch,” said representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican.
“You may not care that your data is being accessed now, but there will be one day when you do care about it,” he said.
US state to require parental consent for social media
Utah on Thursday became the first US state to require social media sites to get parental consent for accounts used by under-18s, placing the burden on platforms like Instagram and TikTok to verify the age of their users.
The law, which takes effect March 2024, was brought in response to fears over growing youth addiction to social media, and to security risks such as online bullying, exploitation, and collection of children’s personal data.
But it has prompted warnings from tech firms and civil liberties groups that it could curtail access to online resources for marginalized teens, and have far-reaching implications for free speech.
“We’re no longer willing to let social media companies continue to harm the mental health of our youth,” tweeted Spencer Cox, governor of the western US state, who signed two related bills at a ceremony Thursday.
The bills also require social media firms to grant parents full access to their children’s accounts, and to create a default “curfew” blocking overnight access to children’s accounts.
They set out fines for social media companies if they target users under 18 with “addictive algorithms,” and make it easier for parents to sue social media companies for financial, physical or emotional harm.
“We hope that this is just the first step in many bills that we’ll see across the nation, and hopefully taken on by the federal government,” said state representative Jordan Teuscher, who co-sponsored the bill.
Michael McKell, a Republican member of Utah’s Senate who also sponsored the bill, said it was a “bipartisan” effort, and praised President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address, in which he raised the issue.
Biden last month called on US lawmakers to restrict how social media companies advertise to children and collect their data, as he accused Big Tech of conducting a “for profit” experiment on the nation’s youth.
California has already introduced online safety laws including strict default privacy settings for minors, but the Utah law goes further.
Lawmakers in states such as Ohio and Connecticut are working on similar bills.
Platforms including Instagram and TikTok have introduced more controls for parents, such as messaging limits and time caps.
At Thursday’s ceremony in Utah, McKell pointed to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which he said highlighted the toll social media apps can have on young minds.
“The impact on our daughters — and I have two daughters — it was incredibly troubling,” he said.
“Thirty percent of our daughters from ninth grade to 12th grade had seriously contemplated suicide. That’s startling.”
Google opens chatbot Bard for testing in US and UK
Google on Tuesday invited people in the United States and Britain to test its AI chatbot, known as Bard, as it scrambles to catch up with Microsoft-backed ChatGPT.
Bard, ChatGPT and other similar apps churn out essays, poems or computing code on command, though they come with warnings that the information they create can be incorrect or inappropriate.
People wishing to play with Bard can sign up on a waiting list at bard.google.com website, distinctly separate from the tech giant’s search engine.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a tweet that the move is an “early experiment” allowing people to collaborate with generative artificial intelligence (AI).
“We’ve learned a lot so far by testing Bard, and the next critical step in improving it is to get feedback from more people,” Google vice presidents Sissie Hsiao and Eli Collins said in a blog post.
“We continue to see that the more people use them, the better LLMs (large language models) get at predicting what responses might be helpful.”
As exciting as chatbots are, they have their faults, Hsiao and Collins cautioned.
They can incorporate real-world biases, stereotypes or inaccuracies in responses, according to the vice presidents.
Google has adopted a more cautious rollout of generative AI in contrast to Microsoft that has chosen to swiftly make the products available to consumers despite reports of problems.
ChatGPT’s OpenAI is backed by Microsoft, which earlier this year said it would finance the research company to the tune of billions of dollars.
OpenAI recently released a long-awaited update of its AI technology that it said would be safer and more accurate than its predecessor.
Much of the new model’s firepower is now available to the general public via ChatGPT Plus, OpenAI’s paid subscription plan and on an AI-powered version of Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
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