Smartphone monitoring system helps Pakistan control dengue outbreaks

An Android-based monitoring system in Pakistan is helping to control dengue outbreaks by tracking and tagging confirmed cases and the mosquito larvae that carry the disease, according to an Oct. 30 article in Technology Review. This summer, Pakistani government workers used 1,500 Android smartphones to tag each dengue case by time and location, allowing health officials to track and predict the path of the disease.

"Because of the Android phones, we could localize the outbreak to a couple of hundred houses," Umar Saif, a computer scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, told Technology Review. "This year, because of the tracking system and the efforts of government employees on the ground, we could look at a map and tell if certain areas were going to develop into an epidemic." 

The monitoring system relies on actual testing of mosquito larvae and hospital reports to predict where dengue outbreaks are starting. If a specific neighborhood is suspected to be at the beginning of an outbreak, then government officials search those bodies of water where mosquitos and their larvae are likely causing the problem.

"The key is to be able to localize and quarantine a disease like this and prevent it from developing into an epidemic," said Saif, who also manages Flubreaks, a system that processes data from Google Flu Trends, which estimates the spread of flu based on search terms related to the disease. Flubreaks is the basis of the dengue early detection system used in Pakistan, which scans search terms for disease-related words that can help speed the identification of dengue outbreaks and also predict epidemics before they get a chance to start.

Government researchers have adapted the algorithms designed for early-detection of flu outbreaks to tell them where to seek out the telltale signs of a serious outbreak and mosquito larvae that causes dengue. Using the data, government workers are then able to go to an area, kill the larvae, and clear pools of water that serve as mosquito breeding grounds.

The technology appears to be having a significant impact on the Pakistani city of Lahore, which last year experienced its worst recorded outbreak of dengue with 16,000 people infected with the disease, resulting in 352 deaths. However, this year there were just 234 confirmed cases and no fatalities in the city.

A study released last year by Cambridge University researchers noted the role that cell phones and smartphones have played in disease-surveillance projects, such as gathering data on a dengue outbreak in Brazil.

For more information:
- read the Technology Review article