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Thu, 23 October 2014 11:17:32
Sri Lanka mobile phone project helps early detection of killer diseases
14 Sep, 2010 15:05:40
Sept 14, 2010 (LBO) - Sri Lanka has successfully done a trial project that helps early detection of killer communicable diseases using mobile phones to send data that also reduces costs, officials said.
The 'real-time bio-surveillance programme' enables the rapid detection and notification of potential health outbreaks through mobile phones, software applications and a Web interface, said LIRNEasia, a regional information communications technology think tank.

It did the pilot project in Sri Lanka's north-western Wayamba province with funds from International development Research centre of Canada, the Sarvodaya community-based organisation and several other local and foreign partners.

Saman Ratnayaka, a doctor who is the director of health services in the Wayamba province where the trial was done, said the mobile phone system helps speed up the flow of data and decision-making in the existing system.

The present system, although efficient, was set up during the late 19th century.

"We needed to speed up the flow of information," Ratnayaka told a news conference.

"With the existing system it takes about 2-3 weeks to pass information to the epidemiological centre in Colombo. We've been trying to reduce this gap."

The system was useful because of recent outbreaks of communicable diseases, with health authorities only aware of an outbreak when the media reported the death of several people.

With the new system, data on patients and symptoms of illnesses are sent through mobile phones in real-time from hospital wards to the epidemiological centre.

This enables quick analysis of data and detection of patterns of disease that could provide early warning of potential outbreaks enabling health authorities to act.

"We get information in real-time to take action," said Ratnayaka. "It is easier to manage information to make decisions. We can quickly know what is happening in any particular locality.

"We need fast information to prevent the spread of diseases."

The system is expected to be adopted throughout the island to help control the spread of communicable diseases, he said.

Nuwan Waidyanatha, senior research manager at LIRNEasia, said quick reporting of symptoms of illnesses was a key element to identifying disease outbreaks.

"The problem was being able to detect emerging diseases which we do not know about until a few deaths occur," he said.

"The system should be one that is used every day, not something you put on the shelf and then use only in a crisis.

"The real-time bio-surveillance system collects and analyses data, and once an outbreak is detected it then disseminates data to relevant health officials to take action."

With a Sri Lankan doctor seeing about 100 patients a day, the existing paper-based system could not cope with the flow of information to enable faster notification, hence the use of mobile phones and computers.

"Now we can send data instantaneously through mobile phones," said Waidyanatha.

Volunteers from Sarvodaya are deployed at hospitals to help enter the data and ease the burden of work of the regular health staff.

"If there's an increasing number of symptoms such as cough, vomiting or rash emerging in several areas, that should alarm epidemiologists and they can then investigate why," said Waidyanatha.

"With the new system it is easy for epidemiologists to look at data in different ways. When they do find anything alarming they can send information back to the field to public health officials either for action or to be vigilant."

Once an outbreak of disease is detected, warning messages can be sent to public health officials as well as the public through SMS, email and the web.

The new mobile phone system has also helped reduce costs.

"Usually when we introduce new technology the cost goes up," said Waidyanatha.

"But surprisingly we found with this system costs were lower. It costs 50 cents to send an SMS compared with six rupees for a letter. It also spares the time of people who have to do paperwork."

Vinya Ariyaratne, general secretary of Sarvodaya and principal investigator in the project, said they want to promote community use of appropriate and affordable technology for people to be able to control diseases at a community level.

"Use of real-time information technology facilitates early intervention," he said. "If we can detect disease patterns and enable early analysis, then we can respond early."
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