Mobile Phones as Outbreak Predictors?

A new global consortium wants to predict disease outbreaks in a matter of 24 hours.

Indian cell phone

An all-star consortium in South Asia wants to maximize the potential of mobile health care by identifying epidemics within 24 hours, compared to the standard two to three weeks it normally takes in countries such as Sri Lanka. The partners include the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Carnegie Mellon University’s Auton Lab, LIRNEasia, the University of Alberta, and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), among others, and together the effort is called the Real Time Biosurveillance Program (RTBP). The group is conducting ongoing research to see how a comprehensive disease surveillance system could work in rural areas via mobiles.


The mobile phone as a health delivery vehicle is not new, with examples ranging from Vodafone to ISIS and others, but the fact that a global consortium has come together to push forward mobile health signifies that there is indeed room to innovate. In addition to allowing users to text questions and receive answers and in addition to having trained workers log info about disease reports in rural areas in real-time, the RTBP is working on reducing the time required to identify outbreaks and epidemics to just one day, which is significant when you consider just how inefficient the alternative surveillance bodies are, namely government institutions, which can take weeks or months to get into gear.

“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,” Lank Business Online reports.

Now if the same consortia can somehow figure out a surveillance program of bureaucratic inefficiencies, then the relevant governments of these countries may actually be able to respond well and respond fast, given that identification is just one component to controlling epidemics. Increasing the efficiency with which epidemics are identified is a step forward, but what comes after–implementation of crowd control, region-wide communications, and swift deployment of medical personnel–is the real test.

[Image via flickr/Dipanker Dutta]

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.