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04 December 2014

Technology to defeat Ebola

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In February 2011, a milestone hit the front pages of newspapers around the world. Watson, a supercomputer developed by the computer giant IBM, managed to defeat, on the popular American television quiz program Jeopardy!, the two participants who had earned the most money in the program’s history. Four years after this event, Watson was revealed as a possible ally for a much more important goal, defeating the spread of the Ebola virus, which exceeds 90% mortality in some strains.

The supercomputer manufacturer has announced the launching of a project of $100 million (nearly 80 million euros) so that Watson help solve the problem of Ebola in Africa. IBM relies on the ability of the machine to “learn” after analyzing large amounts of data, the same quality that led it to win the television quiz show. “The nice thing about Watson is that it’s a community computer. You can share information on Ebola cases with it and then ask it questions and it will give a prognosis and suggest the best treatment for a patient based on that data,” said the director of IBM in West Africa, Taiwo Otiti.

Interactive Map of Ebola

The Watson project is not the only technological approach in the fight against Ebola. More and more experts from around the world refer to technology as a possible tool against infection. “Emerging technologies can help early warning systems, the outbreak response and the communication between health professionals, nature experts and veterinarians,” four doctors in the research laboratory at Mercy Hospital (in Sierra Leone) wrote recently in the medical journal The Lancet.

The authors did not mention supercomputers like Watson, but rather a much more accessible tool: mobile phones. It is anticipated that the use of smartphones in Africa will increase by a factor of 20 over the next five years, which would double the growth rate of any other region. “Our laboratory and others in the region have shown that routine monitoring systems can be designed to be supported on the phones, which are ubiquitous in West Africa,” write these same researchers.

This is not just a guess. Last August, Orange Telecom, a leading telephone operator in the region, gave a team of researchers from the Swedish NGO Flowminder access to data collected from mobile phones in Senegal, which offered a kind of x-ray on population movements between regions, which can help to predict the spread of the epidemic. Orange authorized the analysis of this data as something exceptional in support of efforts to control the virus.

Thus, both the company and the NGO wanted to clarify that the experience was not intended to be used to establish travel restrictions, but rather to offer clues about where to focus preventive measures and health care. The clarification was necessary after the controversial decision of Senegal, also last summer, to close its borders with Guinea.

The Senegal data gathered 150,000 mobile phones that the company kept anonymous. The information has been distributed to the researchers at Flowminder as part of a data analysis challenge planned for 2015.

A similar initiative has involved Healthmap, a team of researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, who have produced an animation of the spread of the epidemic since March from mortality records of the disease.

But perhaps one of the projects based on the most advanced technologies was begun in July by the French consultant Cedric Moro, who has used an online mapping service to study the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Anyone interested can enter information about suspected or confirmed cases of the disease, while hospitals and other health centers can advise if they are open, their location, and the number of available free beds, all of this on a website accessible to public. The project, created using the open source software uMap, also provides more useful information, such as the places where it is not safe to bury victims of the disease, places where there has been hostility towards health workers or simply links to useful information about the disease.

The French project has proven to be a useful tool to help connect potential victims of the infection with the appropriate health care facilities.

Of course, as explained in an article on the initiative published in the MIT Technology Review, its main advantage is also its main limitation, namely that to participate in uMap you must have access to a computer or telephone with Internet connection.

This is a handicap that the NGO Doctors Without Border intends to solve with their announcement of plans to expand the upload data to include simple text messages that can be sent from any conventional phone. The idea is to establish a toll-free number to receive these SMSs, whose location would be analyzed by means of the antennas that relay mobile data.

What all these initiatives have in common is a growing interest and hope in the use of technology at different levels as a weapon against the spread of a virus that, at present, is still resistant to drugs and effective vaccines. Only time will tell whether the system solidifies and is implemented throughout the region. In that case, one cannot rule out its use in controlling other future epidemics with even greater numbers of affected people.

By Ainhoa Iriberri, for Ventana al Conocimiento  (Knowledge Window)

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