20.10.2014

The mobile phone joins the fight against ebola

The mobile phone joins the fight against ebola

Image | European Comission DG

It’s a shame that the mobile cannot yet diagnose serious diseases such as ebola, but we are working on research to get us there. The smartphone may someday become a powerful tool to help contain the spread of a deadly disease like this one that is worrying global health authorities, especially with what is happening in West Africa.

However, while we await the time when mobiles play a more important role, there are several initiatives that serve as a communications platform. These help in tracking possible infections and provide valuable information for those on the front lines more efficiently than the tools available in previous crises.

One particular initiative is led by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and an NGO in North Carolina, USA. Together they are developing the eHero platform based on the new UNICEF software called RapidPro . eHero will be completed and operating in Liberia in late October and will link the Ministry of Health database (including cell phone numbers of their workers and volunteers) with the WHO, allowing them to exchange information ranging from the care that must taken when treating a possibly infected person to reporting on results of studies.

The American magazine Politico interviewed Sean Blaschke, one of the project managers, who stated that health workers from that country currently communicate with each other via mobile phones but do so in an informal, unstructured and undocumented way. With eHero, says Blaschke, they are seeking to formalize and improve the communication, which will help improve the delivery of supplies and design better policies, for example.

Another initiative is located in Nigeria and is led by the US-based eHealth & Information Systems Nigeria. It is an Android app that was installed on Ministry of Health workers’ mobiles in the African country as soon as the epidemic came to light. With the app they could (and can) report cases to the emergency centre in less time (even in real time) and in greater detail, factors that are crucial to strategies aimed at containing the disease.

The mobile phone joins the fight against ebola

Imagen | UNICEF

The eHealth app also allows GPS monitoring of the geographical location of infected or potentially sick people, making possible georeferenced models that help in locating the potential area size of an outbreak of the epidemic, the number of people infected and the resources required to contain it, among other actions.

Nigeria’s response to the serious problem of Ebola was more comprehensive than that of other African countries as it also included a strong information campaign aimed at both the public and the media. In addition, Google made ​​ valuable information such as referenced maps available to the government. Other agencies also cooperated given that Nigeria represented a serious danger due to the size of its population (170 million) and better air connections. A further advantage was the Nigerian telecommunications infrastructure, also better than the other countries concerned.

What’s to come

New tools and solutions are being developed as the world learns more about Ebola and technological resources are adapted to it. For example, one start-up designed the app Sickweather , which monitors posts on Facebook and Twitter from people who report their health symptoms. These are then georeferenced on a map which shows the potential health issues as they emerge. Large foundations like the The Gates Foundation have made significant financial contributions.

There are myriad ways in which mobile technology can work with medicine to fight or control the spread of all kinds of diseases. In the case of ebola, we are looking at only a small sample of them, but they will doubtlessly prove to be a great help in facing future pandemics.