Mobile Disease Surveillance

By: Trang Nguyen   

Mobile devices enable us to do amazing things. We can stay up to date on emails and breaking news stories. We can speak face-to-face with someone that lives on the other side of the world. We can find accurate directions to almost anywhere. We can look up obscure facts in just a few seconds, and we can translate between nearly every language. More amazing than any of these features, though, is something that most of us overlook. Mobile devices are now giving us the power to save lives.

Communicable diseases are one of the leading causes of death worldwide each year. The latest reports estimated 207 million cases of malaria, a preventable and curable communicable disease. In 2012, tuberculosis (TB) infected an estimated 8.6 million people worldwide. TB is another communicable disease that is preventable and curable. These two infectious disease examples occur in developed countries, but most detrimentally, malaria and TB are present in underdeveloped regions that do not have the appropriate disease reporting and tracking capabilities.

Epidemiologists and other medical professionals are approaching this problem with a solution that centers around the use of telecommunications. Often times, infectious diseases in rural areas are difficult to eradicate because of the time gap that exists between the time that individuals are infected with a diseases and the moment that they are diagnosed. By reducing this time gap, health workers can minimize the number of contacts the infected individual has, thus controlling the spread of the disease. This is being done through the use of mobile devices.

Systems are now being put in place that allow health workers in rural areas to submit disease tracking reports through a mobile device. This means that as soon as an individual is diagnosed, the local health worker has the ability to report a case of an infection. Disease surveillance systems based on mobile devices are expanding at a rapid pace because these devices are easy to distribute even to underdeveloped regions.

One example of an extensive mobile disease surveillance system was implemented by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This system was put into place after a major earthquake hit the north-western part of the Sichuan province of China. Prior to the earthquake, Sichuan had an electronic disease surveillance system that required dial-up or broadband internet connections. When the earthquake rendered this system useless, an alternative needed to be put in place before China was hit with an epidemic. Setting up the system required a highly efficient process. First, mobile phones and a mobile provider had to be selected. Then, the CDC had to develop a reporting system for the phones. Finally, the phones had to be distributed to affected areas and providing onsite training to the health workers.

The reporting system allowed health workers to use SMS (short messaging system, or text messaging) to fill out a digital form that contained 16 different information categories. With this reporting system, the health workers could report on 38 different infectious diseases. It took a trained worker around 3 minutes to send a case report to the national database through this system. The system of mobile disease surveillance accomplished the goals of the CDC in the Sichaun province. Phones were distributed in a timely manner, and health care workers could be trained to report cases in less than an hour. This is promising evidence that future systems for mobile disease surveillance may be successfully executed in other areas of the world.

Sichuan, China has not been the only place where mobile disease tracking and reporting systems have been put into place. Handhelds for Health in Karnataka, India provides a system in which health workers can collect, validate, and transmit diseases on communicable diseases to a centralized sever. Additionally, this system will allow health workers to track information on non-communicable diseases. FrontlineSMS is applying telecommunications to disease surveillance in multiple regions worldwide. The technology is a PC-based software application that lets users send and receive group SMS messages without an Internet connection. Across Africa, FrontlineSMS has been used to deliver reports on outbreaks of the avian flu. In Uganda, the system has been implemented to supplement the health care system in rural communities.

Mobile devices have enormous potential for transforming the way epidemiologists and health professionals track and report infectious diseases. The use of mobile phones for disease surveillance has many benefits. For example, mobile devices can be cheaply and quickly distributed to rural areas and mobile providers are often already in place. Health workers can be trained quickly and the technology is fairly simple to use. New infrastructure does not need to be brought in, and the system can be easily integrated into existing databases.

Most of us have used our mobile devices today to go on Facebook, check Twitter, Google a new term, or send a Snapchat. As mobile disease surveillance systems become more prevalent around the world, we may reach the day where using our phones to help save lives becomes the norm.