Can mHealth tackle Zika?
It’s been two years since WHO1 announced the Zika epidemic was no longer an international emergency, but still remained a threat.
The mosquito-borne flavivirus spread rapidly throughout Latin America and the Caribbean during 2015-16, carried by Aedes aegypti; a species of mosquito which commonly transmits dengue and chikungunya.
In this technological age, applying mosquito repellent or avoiding travel to infected areas seems a rather primitive response, yet prevention remains the cure. Prevention has been met with ingenuity. One notable example discusses the launch of drones2 to release sterile mosquitos into populated, but inaccessible, environments.
Mobile apps have already been deployed in field to help tackle the spread of infectious diseases, like Ebola, so can the mHealth technologies be applied to a virus which is often relatively benign?
In most cases, symptoms tend to include mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle joint pain and headaches, however, the Zika virus has also been linked to more series conditions, namely; Guillain-Barré syndrome and birth defects like Microcephaly.
Since the Ebola outbreak in 2014, mobile phone networks have been essential in by-passing poor infrastructure across West Africa, enabling the collection of geo-location data and tools for point-of-care diagnostics3, particularly among those living in rural areas, remote from healthcare provision.
Smartphone technology can be harnessed in the same way to locate the Zika virus by tracking its carriers. For example, Scientists at Standford University4 have developed an app which can record the sound of mosquitos and distinguish between different species to track those which carry infectious disease.
Tools which can support the location of high risk infected areas is key. Yet, evidence suggests the Zika virus can also be contracted through sexual intercourse, and this greatly increases the complexity of tracking the disease.
Furthermore, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recognise that the symptoms of Zika infection can often only last a week.5 The short timeframe in order to diagnose the infection is often met with a time-consuming test process, performed under laboratory conditions.
Just one method of testing; Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), is designed to detect the active virus in blood and urine, similar to West Nile or Influenza – although this Zika test is only reliable if it’s used within a week or two after exposure.6
The combination of short, often mild symptoms and the versatile nature in which Zika can spread, means it is imperative that testing is immediately accessible to those who have recently travelled, or been in contact with someone, from a known infected area.
WHO has responded with the Zika App7, which provides real-time information primarily for healthcare workers and responders.
What if Zika testing could be performed by those displaying symptoms from the point of care? Diagnostic testing using smartphone readers could provide an early diagnosis and help prevent spread of the virus through sexual transmission.
With more mobile phones in the world than people8, it’s seems inevitable that the smartphone in our pocket has the greatest potential to protect ourselves from uncontainable infectious diseases whilst researching a vaccine.
Find out more about how smartphone diagnostic technologies could help monitor and prevent the spread of infectious disease out in the field.
1. WHO: http://www.who.int/emergencies/zika-virus/history/en/
2. BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-42066518
3. MSH: https://www.msh.org/sites/msh.org/files/technology_and_ebola_response_in_west_africa_technical_brief_final.pdf
4. Standford: https://news.stanford.edu/2017/10/31/tracking-mosquitoes-cellphone/
5. CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/zika/symptoms/symptoms.html
6. NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/20/well/live/want-a-zika-test-its-not-easy.html
7. WHO: http://www.who.int/risk-communication/zika-virus/app/en/
8. Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/there-are-officially-more-mobile-devices-than-people-in-the-world-9780518.html