The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the largest and longest ever recorded for the disease, has so far killed more than a 1000 people. As the world battles to fight and contain this menace, two healthcare workers afflicted with the virus were successfully transported out of the affected area earlier this month in a configurable advanced air ambulance called the Gulfstream III. This was fitted with a modular Aeromedical Biological Containment System—a tent-like plastic structure that was provided with negative air pressure to keep pathogens from entering the cabin. This was in addition to the jet's extensive medical equipment that could be configured to treat and monitor the patient's unique symptoms during a flight. However, this was not the first time that doctors or health officials have banked on technology to contain or track this epidemic.
In Boston, an online tool run by experts flagged a "mystery hemorrhagic fever" in forested areas of southeastern Guinea nine days before the World Health Organization (WHO) formally announced the epidemic. This tool uses algorithms to scour tens of thousands of social media sites, local news, government websites, and other sources to detect and track disease outbreaks. It then identifies and maps their locations with the help of experts—generating information that includes locations of specific outbreaks and tracking new cases and deaths.
Thousands of miles away from the epicenter in Liberia, a US company specializing in the field of geo-spatial technology is providing free mapping technology to accurately track the presence of victims, the location of clinics, and identifying epidemic trends. By mapping the location of outbreaks, health officials in Liberia and in the World Health Organization (WHO) can proactively take decisions and shift victims to clinics at the earliest.
In the past, researchers in Burkina Faso have used satellite data to track Saharan dust storms and their connection with meningitis—an airborne disease transmitted more easily in dusty conditions. Experts are also of the view that smartphones could play a greater role in combating the disease as routine clinical surveillance systems can be designed to rely on mobile phones, which have become ubiquitous in West Africa.
Taking cue from the saying “Prevention is better than cure”, educating families about transmission and promoting safe hygiene behavior is crucial in preventing epidemics. Again technology comes to the rescue in the form of simple text messages, which can be used extensively to dispel myths and help change attitudes.
How else can technology be used to combat epidemics? Please leave your comments in the section below.