Mobile tools could be vital in Africa's Ebola fight

While Ebola is devastating Liberia, a North Carolina-based nonprofit is teaming with Unicef and the World Health Organization (WHO) to quickly build a mobile communications system that gives health workers in that nation the resources they need to fight the disease, reports Politico.

mHero--Health Worker Electronic Response and Outreach--is one way to harness the power of mobile technology to reach frontline health workers. Currently under rapid development with support from a consortium of partners, mHero is a free SMS mobile phone-based communications system for health workers.

Most West Africans own or have access to mobile phones, but use of the phone network to fight Ebola has been difficult to organize, Alain Labrique, head of the Global mHealth Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, told Politico.

The lack of organized ways to communicate instructions to the field, and needs from the field to the district and federal health officials, have hampered control of the disease, according to the report.

If health workers don't know how to prevent the spread of the virus, they are contributing to it rather than preventing it, said Dykki Settle, director of health workforce informatics at IntraHealth in Chapel Hill, N.C., which developed the database. 

The Unicef platform allows health care workers to use SMS or other types of text messaging. Liberia's health ministry can provide training materials to health workers and send targeted messages--for instance, to all nurses in counties near where Ebola has appeared.

IntraHealth and Unicef conducted a demo of the software at the Health Ministry in Monrovia and are setting the terms of how the program will be run, Settle said. Eventually it could also be used in Sierra Leone, another nation hit by Ebola. With IntraHealth's help, Sierra Leone built a health worker database.

The project is being enabled by RapidPro, an open-source platform of applications launched last month, when it was described as essentially an "app store for good," by Sharad Sapra, director of Unicef's Nairobi-based global Innovation Center, in a press release. It gives governments and development professionals new tools they can customize to connect citizens and critical services, Sapra said.

Produced by Unicef's global Innovations Labs in collaboration with Nyuruka, a Rwandan software development firm, and drawing on eight years of experience with SMS-based applications, RapidPro is already being used in several countries.

In the coming months, RapidPro will also host and support more sophisticated phones, and more applications will be made available through the platform. These include RapidFTR, an Android forms-based data collection software that was developed in Unicef's Innovation Labs in South Sudan and Uganda, and originated in New York University's Design for UNICEF class. It records information about separated children, including a photo, shares it with other emergency responders, and allows family members to locate a missing child.

In a commentary published in PLOS (Public Library of Science), Andrew Tatem of Southampton University and colleagues said that mobile phone data might be effective in tracking the Ebola epidemic. Anonymized call data records could support efforts to model the epidemic, prioritize surveillance and plan distribution of health care supplies, Tatem said in an email to Politico. Scientists were seeking to obtain the records from mobile network operators in the region.

Social media, which is used extensively in the developed world to track the spread of common viral diseases like influenza, isn't as widely used in Africa.

For more:
- see this Politico article
- see this PLOS commentary

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