A team of Pakistani scientists created a phone service that could accurately point health workers to areas where the disease was emerging.
By Ed Yong
In the summer of 2011, an epidemic of dengue fever hit the Pakistani province of Punjab, home to 100 million people. With no way of accurately detecting cases, health workers struggled to contain the disease. It spread quickly, especially through the populous city of Lahore. More than 21,000 people were eventually infected, and 350 of them died. “Hospitals were crowded with patients, and people were standing in line just to get themselves tested,” recalls Nabeel Abdur Rehman from Information Technology University in Lahore.
Rehman came up with a plan to ease the crowds of worried people. His boss, Umar Saif, happened to be the chair of the Punjab Information Technology Board, and together, they set up a free hotline manned by a hundred-strong team of medically trained operators. People could call, report their symptoms, get directions to the nearest hospitals if they were genuinely showing signs of dengue, find out if beds were available, and even request insecticide sprays for their homes or neighborhoods.
The hotline worked well. Since its inception, in September 2011, it has fielded more than 300,000 calls. But more importantly, Rehman’s team learned that they could use the volume of calls to forecast dengue outbreaks a few weeks in advance. And their predictions helped public health workers to focus their efforts in areas at greatest risk. “The forecast was being distributed to a large range of hospitals, and a lot of health workers acted upon it,” says Lakshmi Subramanian from New York University, who co-led the project. “It’s a system where the results were actionable.”
Assistant Professor Elaine Nsoesie is quoted in this article in The Atlantic, and other UW researchers from computer science and engineering and the Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICTD) Lab helped develop this system.