Can Mobile Technology Mitigate the Ebola Crisis?

By Dr. Ammina Kothari

Kothari_Ammina_LROn Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, Reuters reported that eight people including some health workers and journalists were found dead in a village latrine in a Guinean village near the city of Nzerekore. They had been trying to distribute information about Ebola when fearful villagers, who are skeptical about the virus, attacked them with stones and clubs.

This raises the question: Are there ways to utilize emerging technologies such as mobile phones and digital tools for health education and to help reduce fear and stigma associated with the deadly disease?

This is a valid question as the death toll continues to rise, and medical and humanitarian volunteers start to experience both fatigue and death threats. Stakeholders in charge of addressing this crisis are being asked to come up with innovative ways of educating people about the disease and prevention methods.

Health Workers in full protective gear in Guinea have alarmed locals. Image: Agence France Presse
Health Workers in full protective gear in Guinea have alarmed locals. Image: Agence France Presse

While Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, has been reappearing in some African countries since 1976, the 2014 outbreak is the largest in history as it not only affects multiple countries in Africa but also increases the chances of it spreading globally due to constant movement of people around the world.

Mobile technology and digital platforms are excellent tools for health workers to share health campaigns and journalists to report on a developing story, without exposing more people to the virus.

The ubiquity of cell phones and texting in most African countries provides a unique opportunity to design and communicate culturally appropriate prevention messages in local languages.

Authorities can also simultaneously help people in need of information or offer assistance from local health offices, as is being done in the case of many mobile health campaigns focusing on HIV/AIDS in developing countries. For instance my own research in Tanzania is looking at the use of cellphone technology to improve communication of HIV/AIDS-related information.

With the current Ebola outbreak journalists looking for timely statistics on fatality rates in various countries can crowd source information using a platform such as Ushahidi, which allows for both citizen tagging of cases on customized maps and aggregation of data from secondary sources.

Alternatively, more institutions could adopt the approach taken by Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, which have created an online database called HealthMap – one of the first sources to identify the outbreak in March, according to mhealthnews.

The Ebola map, a feature of HealthMap, currently uses online news aggregators and other validated sources to provide real-time monitoring of the outbreak.

The case of Ebola clearly illustrates the value of health news and timely reporting, as various stakeholders rely on media reports to track the spread of the disease.

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