Malaria and Mobiles – Hacking or Helping

Surprise – the latest in the Rupert Murdoch scandal concerns malaria.  Yesterday Metro Online headlined a story: “Cheryl Cole’s ‘phone hacked while she was suffering from malaria.'”  The claims are still at the level of rumors, and thus investigators are still “looking into claims that her voicemails were hacked while she was hospitalised.”

A year ago when Ms Cole’s bout with malaria hit the news, The News of the World was mentioned as a source. One online posting noted that Ms Cole, “is believed to have lost half a stone during her battle with malaria. A source told the News of the World that the Girls Aloud beauty is now just over 7 stone. The insider told the newspaper that medics have said that it could be six months before Cole is allowed to perform her strenuous dance routines.”

Similarly another website reported last year that, “A source told the News of the World: “We nearly lost her and the battle is far from over. She is so weak and this horrible illness has taken complete hold of her. ‘It got so bad she was literally only hours from death’s door. Thank goodness she was diagnosed in time.'”

cellphone-mango.JPGNow a year later MTV UK published that, “Cheryl’s lawyers are investigating claims by a former News of the World journalist, who stated that the Geordie’s voicemails were listened to “while she underwent treatment for malaria.”

Fortunately most use of mobile phone technology these days helps promote malaria control and elimination. In Nigeria for example, mobile phone SMS has been used to track bednet distribution.  A UNICEF spokesperson who is involved in promoting such innovations explained that …

In Africa, we are finding there are systemic failures in public health and supply in terms of getting reliable information quickly from the field. Ninety percent of the developing world has access to a cell phone, so we’re experimenting with the use of instant messaging to make a difference. We’re finding that we can train people in villages to be data collectors and help us by using cell phones to text information to central authorities; we and governments can then respond faster to specific needs. In some places, it takes months just to get a piece of paper from the field. Mobile phones and SMS technology can help surmount that hurdle.

Recently the Business Standard reported that, “The University of Glasgow has received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further help in the diagnosis of malaria. The $100,000 award would go towards developing a device which uses mobile-phone derived technology to detect and separate red blood cells infected with malaria parasites.”

A study by Caroline Asiimwe and colleagues in Uganda has shown SMS improves the timeliness in reporting of specific, time-sensitive information on RDT positivity rates and ACT stockouts at modest cost, while by-passing current bottlenecks in the flow of data. Likewise in Tanzania “A multinational computer, technology and IT consulting company, IBM, in partnership with Novartis and Vodafone, together with Roll Back Malaria and Tanzania’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare have reaped from the technology dubbed ‘SMS for Life’. The system tracks movement and the supply of anti-malaria drugs in sub-Saharan Africa.”

People have argued that technology itself is ethically neutral – it is how people use it that has ethical ramifications. In the case of malaria hopefully we will see more uses that help save lives instead of illegally spying on and disrupting them.

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