Can mobile tech innovation help contain Zika?

Apr 07, 2016, 2:39 PM EDT
Siquirres, Costa Rica. (Michelle Callahan/flickr)
Siquirres, Costa Rica. (Michelle Callahan/flickr)

Health workers, researchers, global organizations, and governments are turning focus to technology to help stem the spread of the Zika virus, which has been dubbed a public health emergency by the World Health Organization and is causing particular concern in Brazil in the leadup to the Summer Olympics. Advancements in mobile tech and big data are the chief focus now for governments wrestling with the disease outbreak.

As Blouin News has previously explored, crowdsourcing applications have been frequently cited as tools to pinpoint Zika outbreaks, how they spread, and where to direct healthcare worker power. (The health tech world has looked at crowdsourcing technology for addressing other diseases like dengue fever.) In addition, tech giants are partnering with health providers to disseminate accurate medical information. Google, for example, recently launched a service in India that provides information on digital cards about various diseases. A similar service was launched in Brazil two weeks ago, updated with information on Zika; it is available in desktop and mobile format and serves to properly educate users on medical conditions — one of Google's top search functions.

Mobile health and health technology are closely tied to big data, especially concerning crowdsourcing tech and how it provides insight into disease outbreaks. The Associated Press reported this week that researchers from the University of Hawaii at the Pacific Disaster Center are doing just that, focusing their capacities on Zika and where it might spread next. PDC Executive Director Ray Shirkhodai said they are using publicly available data such as the number of Zika cases, data on rainfall, and the location of roads and airports, and are working with Latin American governments to obtain information, including hospital locations and details on health care policies, to figure out which countries could respond better to an outbreak. The PDC’s efforts using publicly available data underscore how much more progress can be made by using data inputted by general users, for example the kind of information supplied through apps like Flu Near You and Sickweather. 

It's clear that government officials are taking mobile tech’s role in containing Zika seriously, at least in Brazil. São Paulo’s government reportedly has begun using drones to inspect homes for mosquito breeding sites in addition to creating the Sem Dengue app for users to alert government agencies about possible breeding locations. With no cure or vaccine for Zika yet available, identifying the origin of mosquito breeding grounds is now the priority action to stem outbreaks.

Even though Zika is very different than Ebola in important ways, i.e. not nearly as destructive in terms of numbers of deaths, -- and recent developments in tech may fill lacuna in global health response following that devastating virus -- manpower remains a serious concern.  At the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in 2015, Dr. David Bangsberg, director of the Center for Global Health for Massachusetts General Hospital, said that on a global scale “we lost ground” when it comes to human resource capacity for healthcare systems. He noted that in 2030, the world will be short 12.9 million healthcare workers. How will that bode for a Zika-like outbreak? Technology carries us part of the way, but humans have to do the rest.