With almost 9,000 cases resulting in over 4,500 fatalities across three countries since December of 2013, West Africa has fallen victim to an unprecedented Ebola epidemic. The main countries affected have neither the resources nor the infrastructure necessary to account for the rapid spread of the virus, and healthcare organizations are turning to emerging technologies in an effort to find an innovative way to contain this outbreak. There is no known cure for Ebola, but there are a number of ways that we can prevent this dire situation from causing global panic.
The Ebola outbreak is believed to have started eleven months ago following the fatal illness of a two year old boy in Guinea. His death was attributed to what was an unknown form of hemorrhagic fever at the time, and his immediate family members soon became sick with identical symptoms. The boy’s family is assumed to have spread the disease to neighboring villages soon after, establishing Guinea as ground zero for a viral epidemic.
While Ebola has been considered a major public health threat in Sub-Saharan Africa for decades, there was not a single case reported in the western part of the continent prior to this most recent outbreak. For this reason, the Guinean Ministry of Health was hesitant to attribute these initial fatalities to the Ebola Virus. The Ebola epidemic was not declared until March 23, inciting an emergency response from the French humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres who immediately set up an isolation center in Gueckedou.
According to the World Health Organization, Ebola is a severe form of hemorrhagic fever that can be easily transmitted from human to human. The disease is spread through direct contact with the contaminated bodily fluids of an infected individual, and the onset of symptoms occurs within 2 to 21 days. While Ebola is extremely contagious, it is not airborne. As such, efforts to isolate confirmed cases of the disease should be effective in preventing its widespread transmission.
As was previously mentioned, Western African nations do not have access to the resources required to effectively isolate and treat Ebola victims. Without the infrastructure in place to coordinate their relief efforts, governments and health organizations have recognized the need for an innovative solution.
According to an statement released by The Lancet, “The ongoing West African Ebola outbreak serves as a call to ensure access to needed diagnostic technologies and health-care resources, to accelerate the implementation of smartphone-based health applications in developing countries, and to improve regional and global surveillance and health communication.”
A study released by the mobile company Ericsson states that there will be over 635 million subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2014. Mobile phones are similarly ubiquitous in Western Africa, and a potential solution to the Ebola Epidemic involves leveraging this widespread cellular adoption.
TERA, which stands for Trilogy Emergency Relief Application, was developed to aid relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti. Since then, they have partnered with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to help expand their presence. The platform is designed to be operated remotely with a connection that is hosted by GSM-based mobile network operators. TERA’s software consults the mobile network to determine which cell phones are connected to the towers in a specific disaster affected region, and broadcasts a message to them via SMS. TERA’s platform also manages inbound communication from the affected community, implementing keyword recognition to automatically respond to common questions. According to the IFRC website, “The TERA system helps us to save more lives by delivering timely, targeted advice to disaster affected communities that makes our aid effort more efficient.”
Another potential solution involves the potential for smartphone-based syndromic surveillance to improve early detection of outbreaks. Syndromic surveillance systems analyze health-related data across multiple networks to help anticipate disease outbreaks. The tracking of certain metrics can be handled via smartphone to help detect an outbreak before it reaches epidemic proportions. For example, an increase in over the counter drug sales at a given pharmacy coinciding with influx of activity at a nearby medical clinic could be indicative of an emerging problem in that particular region.
With improved syndromic surveillance, Guinea’s Ministry of Health might have been able to identify the onset of the Ebola Epidemic before its spread to neighboring countries. According to the Lancet, “Our laboratory and others in the region have shown that routine syndromic surveillance systems can be designed to rely on mobile phones, which have become ubiquitous in West Africa.” This type of technology could become instrumental in the prevention of future outbreaks, and syndromic surveillance represents an excellent opportunity to circumvent the region’s lack of infrastructure.
Understanding the technological trends in Western Africa has the potential to provide us with the insight necessary to get the Ebola epidemic under control. The implementation of TERA in Western Africa is an excellent start, and hopefully emerging technologies will provide supplemental support in these critical upcoming months.