Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) That Are Being Used in the Fight Against Ebola

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Much has been said about Information and Communications Technology’s (ICT’s) role in the fight against the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). Already, we have seen how effective cell phones, the internet, social media, radio, television and other technologies, are in this unprecedented battle. We have said repeatedly that innovative and easy-to-use ICTs can help give healthcare professionals on the ground, the best chance of saving lives. Cognizant of ICT’s indispensable role is in this fight, many, if not all of the assiduous and vehement Ebola response initiatives by our healthcare and other crisis responders, are implemented with some form of ICT.

We have, in recent times, heard of a plethora of initiatives involving the use of ICTs in the fight against Ebola. A few days ago, we heard of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) support to the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MoH), by providing 18 tablet PCs along with a fully loaded desktop computer. In addition, FAO provided a two-day training in the use of the EpiCollect data collection and storage technology, to maintain an active surveillance system for tracking and monitoring trends and outcomes of the prevalence, of the Ebola Virus Disease in the country. “EpiCollect is a free web and mobile app for the generation of forms (questionnaires) and freely hosted project websites for data collection. Data are collected (including GPS and media) using multiple phones and all data can be viewed centrally (using Google Maps / tables / charts).” See. www.Epicollect.Net

We heard that the Center of Disease Control (CDC) is utilizing a new tool known as the Epi Info Viral Hemorrhagic Fever application (Epi Info VHF), to help locate people exposed to the deadly virus in a faster way. “The application speeds up one of the most difficult parts of disease detection: finding everyone that was exposed to, and possibly infected by, someone with a contagious disease. This task, called contact tracing, is an essential step in breaking the chain of disease transmission and ending an outbreak.” Epi Info VHF is an open-source program that runs on the Epi Info software platform. Epi Info has been made freely available since the 1990s by the CDC. It features virus transmission diagrams that help field workers visualize outbreak spread between people and automated tools that speed contact tracing and data analysis. See http://wwwn.cdc.gov/epiinfo.

We have heard of HealthMap, a system which had “red flagged” the Ebola virus several days before the world declared its existence in the sub-region. HealthMap recently produced an animation of the epidemic’s spread since March, based on records of when and where people died of the disease. HealthMap is a tool (open source) that monitors and aggregates data from numerous online sources worldwide including social media on topics related to public health threats. It crunches and analyses this data and provides real-time updates on health threats, anything from West Nile Virus and rabies, to E. coli and Ebola. See http://Healthmap.org .

We have heard about a digital disease-management system created by RegPoint that can change the outlook, if implemented immediately, and save countless lives. RegPoint has created a completely new medium through which a disease control supervisor, physician and patient can communicate. Information collected is delivered in a secure manner using mobile phones from doctors to members of the public, and vice versa, to allow analysis of clinical information to be conducted and to identify outbreak clusters in the different geographical areas. It is the only solution that can identify clusters before patients arrive at a health facility.

We have heard about the installation of automated hand sanitizer dispensers that are activated by built-in motion sensors that are being placed in public buildings. Wall-mounted Automated Body Temperature Monitors / readers (ABTM), which automatically read the body temperature of individuals passing through an access control point, are also being utilized. And then, there is the wall-mounted thermal infrared imaging camera (TIIC) which automatically reads the body temperature of individuals passing through an access point (this was used in Malaysia during the bird flu epidemic some years ago).

We have heard about calls from ICTs professionals (65 African ICT experts worldwide) or the Africa Emergency Technology Response Forum (AETRF) for stronger political commitment; the establishment of a critical National Database Center; and establishment of National Health Emergencies News & Information radio stations.

Yet, what has become a discourse of ubiquity is the impact of mobile technologies in the fight against Ebola. Mobile phones in particular, are bringing about new healthcare innovations that could potentially transform the state of our weak healthcare systems in contexts where resources are scarce.  Mobile phones have straddled the digital divide between urban-rural and rich-poor groupings in developing countries. They have become critical to our way of living.

Dominant in the mobile technology discourse is its integration in the fight against Ebola and the healthcare system. This is simply due to many reasons, one of them being the high penetration which it (mobile technology) enjoys in developing countries. The use of SMS communications mechanisms has been paramount in such discussions both in the corporate world and academia. Much of this discourse gravitates toward the use of cell phones to track potential Ebola outbreaks. You see all cell phones “ping” nearby towers with a unique ID number to announce their presence. This can provide information through mobile carriers, on population movements and social patterns. This information could help Ebola responders in many ways, especially in the containment of the virus.

Mobile technology is also being used in establishing early-warning systems and the provision of customized mechanisms through which responders can respond to an outbreak. If integrated with syndromic surveillance systems, mobile phone-based data collection mechanisms could be a robust approach to trace and promptly respond to future outbreaks of the EVD or other diseases. .

A lot of the software used nowadays in developing mobile tools is open source (which allows access to the source code and are sometimes free, depending on the license). Leveraging the growth of mobile technology in West Africa and the progress made in open source software development and usage, we can develop more robust applications that can facilitate our fight against the current pandemic as well as future pandemics. We have seen how this has worked in Eastern and Southern Africa (Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia), in the fight against HIV.

Mobile phones and their usage have become omnipresent in West Africa, like many other developing countries. The three most Ebola-affected countries, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have in the past decade experienced a rather pervasive growth in terms of mobile penetration. Furthermore, eleven ministers of health in West Africa recently endorsed the use of mobile phones to fight the ongoing spread of Ebola. Hopefully, as time goes by, we shall see more innovative approaches to integrate mobile technologies in our healthcare system.

Finally, I have briefly discussed a few of the ICTs that are being used in the fight against Ebola. While these ICTs are not the “silver bullet” to solve the Ebola pandemic, they are critical in preventing, containing and recovering from the outbreak if used effectively. Moreover, in the wake of what seems to be a globally coordinated response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, many Africans, especially Liberians, are hopeful that an end is imminent. And, news of the US Government White House CIO’s (Steve VanRoekel) advent to Liberia, in addition to the involvement of many other international stakeholders, is an indication that we are about to adopt a hi-tech approach to managing this disease.

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