Biometrics system for identifying people living with HIV ready

The testing was done at KNH, Kiambu Level Five Hospital, Kisumu East County Hospital and Kombewa Sub-county Hospital in western Kenya.

A biometric system that will use a patient’s iris for identification has been tested and reported ready for deployment.

The system tested among 8,794 HIV patients is reported to have been highly effective, acceptable and friendly to use.

This is a big boost to HIV programmes, as the US had threatened to cut funding if Kenya did not adopt biometric identifiers.

The testing has been carried out by the Ministry of Health, Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) and University of Washington, US.

The study published last month in International Journal of Medical Informatics says iris identification was highly accepted in both rural and urban areas.

The testing was done at KNH, Kiambu Level Five Hospital, Kisumu East County Hospital and Kombewa Sub-county Hospital in western Kenya.

Of the 8794 patients who had been approached, the report says only 100 or one per cent declined to be enrolled in the study.

Highly accepted

“This indicates that the HIV programme in Kenya may be ready for biometrics use for unique patient identification, a key priority for Pepfar,” says the study.

Pepfar, the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief has demanded that Kenya move quickly to introduce unique patient identifiers for its HIV-funded projects.

In a January letter to US Ambassador to Kenya, Kyle McCarter, Pepfar Director Deborah L Birx set the use of such identifiers as a precondition for aid to Kenya.

Failure to meet this requirement by financial year 2019/2020 the Pepfar director warned would result in reductions to the Kenya budget.

The Pepfar demand was mainly due to what it suggests as data manipulation in Kenya, meant to project a bigger HIV epidemic and hence higher funding.

Data, the Americans indicate, has also been manipulated to imply more HIV clients are being served than is the case.

To check on ghost clients and fraud, Pepfar has recommended the immediate use of unique identifiers, such as biometrics, for all clients receiving its supported services.

Past efforts to introduce biometrics identifiers in HIV programmes in Kenya have met strong opposition from civil society and human rights groups.

For about four years, local and foreign activists successfully fought off plans by the Ministry of Health to use biometrics in registering gays and sex workers in Kenya.

The ministry had planned and even acquired expensive equipment in 2016 for a national census of gays, sex workers and related groups known as key populations.

But following opposition from civil society, the US had prevailed upon the ministry to drop use of biometrics and threatened to withhold funding until legal safeguards are put in place.

The activists argued that such data could be misused to track down their members by law enforcers since their activities are illegal in Kenya.

The ministry, on the other hand, wanted a foolproof method of identifying individuals especially those participating in HIV programmes for proper planning and accountability.

But the signing of the Data Protection Bill 2019 into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta last week (November 8, 2019) has made it legal to collect, store and use biometric data.

The new law describes biometric data as personal data based on DNA, blood typing, finger printing retinal scanning or voice recognition.

The law allows collection of personal and health data, but gives the subject most rights on how it is collected, used, stored or discarded.

The law provides a fine of Sh3 million, two years in jail or both for data collectors or processors who contravene it.

In the new study, the authors were impressed by the high acceptance of biometric data collection in both rural and urban Kenya.

“Implementation of an iris recognition system in routine health information systems is feasible and highly acceptable as part of routine care in Kenya,” said the study.