Mobile technology is not new to health developments--cell
phones have been put to task in an impressive range
of technologies to improve public health. An important
and relevant instance of this approach is the use of
texting to address disease epidemics. This happens in
a great variety of ways, including using SMS and related
mobile technology to track diseases, and to encourage
patients and doctors to take protective measures against
rapidly spreading diseases.
A powerful example is Alerta DISAMAR, a project under
the United Nations-Vodafone Foundation that uses text
messaging to track the spread of infectious diseases
as well as to create a valuable store of information
for epidemiologists. Alerta DISAMAR was first conceived
in 2001 following the death of two sailors in Peru from
malaria, leading the navy to seek a way to stave off
The way Alerta DISAMAR works is quite simple. When
a medical professional encounters a new case of illness,
they contact a specific phone number first with their
personal identification number and password, and then
report the designated code for the illness they have
encountered as well as details about the case, such
as the patient's age, sex, and for how long they have
been showing symptoms.
A major benefit of this project is that it alerts doctors
of disease details and trends before a full-fledged
epidemic begins. Time is of the utmost importance in
health emergencies, so making this information available
in real time is critical to the prevention of disease
spread and the saving of lives.
In particular, the information about disease spread
that the project has made available has been very valuable
because it generates useful statistics. The figures
garnered through this project have allowed professionals
to observe trends and has therefore been very useful
for health planning, as a strong base of data allows
for better prediction of the spread of disease.
A separate program uses mobile technology to help treat
those already infected by epidemic diseases rather than
to track their spread. SIMpill, a project in effect
in South Africa, relies on medicine bottles equipped
with sensors and a SIM card to help treat tuberculosis.
In this way, health professionals can monitor whether
patients are taking their tuberculosis medication.
The results have been remarkable; compliance with tuberculosis
medication increased dramatically from 22% to 90%. Of
course, this change serves the dual function of not
only protecting the health and lives of the patients
but that of, in bolstering patients' treatment, preventing
the spread of the disease.
This is nowhere near the end for mobile technology
innovations to fight disease; the United Nations-Vodafone
Foundation works with over 50 such programs worldwide,
with several other projects using SMS to benefit public
health in action or in the works. Though they may not
be immediately obvious, the implications texting carries
for public health are immense.
About the Author -
Sharon Housley is the VP of Marketing for NotePage,
Inc. a software company for communication software solutions.