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Communication &Surveillance Bill Brieger | 20 Dec 2009 11:30 am

Malaria Messaging

cellphone-mango.JPGCell phones are being used for more than calls and text messages.  A variety of applications to help treat and control malaria have been tested over the past few years. A few examples from Africa follow.

1. Diagnostics and Patient Monitoring

Gizmodo explained that, “Scientists at UCLA modded an ordinary phone into a portable blood analyzer that can detect diseases at a very low cost … Blood analysis usually requires either large and expensive equipment or a trained technician to manually examine the material. Both are out of reach for many remote areas, especially in parts of Africa where HIV and malaria are rampant.”

Indian Express notes that this, “Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging has now been successfully installed in both a cell phone and a webcam. Both devices acquire an image in the same way as using a short wavelength blue light to illuminate a blood, saliva or other fluid sample.”

Fletcher and colleagues determined that, “A telemedicine system for global healthcare via mobile phone – offering inexpensive brightfield and fluorescence microscopy integrated with automated image analysis – to provide an important tool for disease diagnosis and screening, particularly in the developing world and rural areas where laboratory facilities are scarce but mobile phone infrastructure is extensive.”

Global Envision explained that Fletcher’s team “has been able to reliably identify pathogens from two of the most prominent diseases in the underdeveloped world — malaria and tuberculosis.”

2. Surveillance and Program Monitoring

Cellular News reported that, “University of Florida researchers at work on a malaria elimination study in Africa have become the first to predict the spread of the disease using cell phone records.”

The study by Tatem et al., found that, “Anonymous mobile phone records provide valuable information on human movement patterns in areas that are typically data-sparse. Estimates of human movement patterns from Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania suggest that imported malaria risk from this group is heterogeneously distributed.”

In 2008, Unicef pioneered a new text message based system for data transmission called RapidSMS. It has been used recently in Nigeria to track distribution of ITNs during massive state-wide campaigns and in Malawi as part of an Integrated Nutrition and Food Security Surveillance System.

As Unicef observes, “Without accurate and timely data, it is very difficult to make decisions, see where there are problems, respond quickly, and allocate resources effectively. RapidSMS is a powerful suite of tools that directly address this problem improving coordination and impact.”

3. Health Communication

Unicef is also collaborating with local telecoms to spread the work about health programs. This past July, “To highlight Zambia’s Child Health Week activities, which this year focus on preventing polio, the Ministry of Health and UNICEF have joined together with two of the country’s leading mobile phone companies, ZAIN and MTN, to spread the message about vaccinations and other key intervention.”

Richard Lester and co-researchers are testing the applicability of cell phones to communicate with patients and improve compliance with anti-retroviral treatment. They hope to, “test the effectiveness of the described intervention protocol, but will instruct further development of the use of mobile telephony to improve health management in resource limited settings.”

While there are still a number of cost, coverage and regulatory issues to be addressed, cell phones are poised to become an invaluable technology for controlling malaria and saving lives.

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