Sep 19, 2008

Tech - Mobiles combat Kenyan polio outbreak (G.Read)

A mobile phone based health application has helped to investigate and contain a polio outbreak that threatened thousands in East Africa.

Health officials in Kenya used the life saving application, EpiSurveyor, after refugees fleeing violence in Somalia introduced the first case of polio into the country in more than 20 years.

The application can be downloaded onto handheld devices to log patients' symptoms and any treatment they receive.

Kenyan health workers modified the survey forms used by EpiSurveyor to track an emergency vaccination campaign and managed to stop a potential epidemic in its tracks.

EpiSurveyor has been funded by the United Nations and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, which is using strategic technology programmes to strengthen UN humanitarian efforts worldwide. It is free to use and is run on an open-source basis.

The trial in Kenya has been so successful that this week the World Health Organisation has announced that it is expanding the project to another 20 countries in Africa.

Outbreak success

The BBC World Service's Digital Planet radio programme spoke to Dr Patrick Nguku from the Kenyan Health Ministry where the project has been piloted.

"In 2006 after 21 years of absence of polio in Kenya, we did confirm a case in our north eastern province and this was followed by massive immunisation campaigns to try and protect susceptible children.

"We used EpiSurveyor to basically control our supplies, monitor which areas needed to be vaccinated and the quick flow of information helped us in achieving very good results", he added.

When health authorities want to collate information on the spread of disease, all they has to do was compile a form with a questionnaire which can then instantaneously be sent out across mobile networks, so data can be gathered from people on their phones.

The completed forms are then sent back to the authorities via the mobile phone network.

"If there is a vaccine shortage in a health facility 800km from Nairobi, this information is relayed in real time to the headquarters and sorted out very fast", said Dr Nguku.

In many countries, a lack of timely and accurate data is one of the greatest obstacles to overcoming long-standing public health challenges. The time taken to record epidemiological information can be slow when healthcare workers have only paper and pen to record which children have been immunized, or where vital stocks of medication have been sent.

"Paper is cumbersome, you have to carry it to wherever you are going, you have to photocopy it and enter the data.

"The EpiSurveyor programme in comparison with paper is much cheaper, better quality and easier to do", he added.

Making it mobile

As the mobile phone becomes commonplace even in many of the world's poorest countries, there is a new window of opportunity for technology to play a vital role in developing solutions to long-standing international development challenges.

"We just got back from Kenya where two weeks ago we did a field test of using Nokia mobile phones to do this kind of data collection," said Joel Selanikio, co-founder of which designed the application.

"It is a huge step to be able to say we can both distribute the forms wirelessly and transmit the data back to some headquarters location wirelessly.

EpiSurveyor is an open-source application, so anyone can look at the computer code that has been used to create it and adapt it to their needs.

"Being open-source, I can tell you that the first time we got contacted by another organisation, who were not only calling us to ask how to use the software, but to say that they also had coding resources and they wanted to make some changes and would that be okay.

"We said that would be terrific and the fellow that I was speaking to said we could add those features and give me the modified code so that I could incorporate it into the general code base.

"We are hoping that as the implementation widens and the more people hear about it, the more people will contribute to the code base and improve EpiSurveyor", added Mr Selanikio.

Mobile technology has revolutionised the way contagious diseases are monitored in sub-Saharan Africa.

"I would encourage people to embrace technology," said Dr Nguku. "This is a programme that will help us do it better."

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