How Well Can Technology Fight Ebola?

Efforts to halt the spread of the Ebola epidemic include a variety of tech tools. But their effectiveness remains unclear.

by / October 29, 2014

On Oct. 28, Healthmap.org reported the latest figures on the Ebola outbreak: Spain 1 case; Guinea 1,553 cases and 926 deaths; Sierra Leone 3,896 cases and 1,281 deaths; Liberia 4,665 cases and 2,705 deaths. And for the U.S., 4 cases and one death. The website's Ebola timeline also provides projections on the number of cases and deaths, based on infection rate data from the World Health Organization, a list of the most recent articles about Ebola outbreaks, as well as relevant social media postings.

Healthmap is one example of how easy it is to find information on this rapidly growing epidemic -- and it also represents the way technology can play a major role in the effort to track and control the disease. For example, mobile phones are perhaps the most ubiquitous type of technology available in Africa, used by millions there. So it didn’t take long for researchers to identify the devices as a possible way to not just send people information about the disease, but also to track it.

And with 95.5 percent of the global population having mobile cell subscriptions, call-data records (CDRs) are one way epidemiologists can see where people have been and where they're headed based on past movements.

CDRs – information used by phone companies to manage their networks and bill their customers, according to the Economist – includes a caller’s identity, the time of the call and the number called. The data can also identify phone location even if the phone is not used. In 2010, a study conducted by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that CDR data accurately measured where people fled over the course of 200 days, following an earthquake and cholera outbreak in Haiti. Research by Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities used CDR data to track the spread of malaria in Kenya and identified the places with the highest probability of spreading the disease.

Based on this research, experts believe CDRs could be used to track details about Ebola as they unfold and help organize a response. But as the epidemic has grown, lack of leadership, regulations that protect a caller’s privacy and other issues have stymied the use of CDRs in Africa.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed an app that will help locate everyone exposed to a person with a contagious disease, and collect and manage data on every case, according to GCN.com. The epidemiological viral hemorrhagic fever (or Epi Info VHF) app lets users set up databases of patient information and epidemiological case classification, and speeds up one of the most difficult parts of disease detection: finding everyone that was exposed to, and possibly infected by, someone with a contagious disease. This task, called contact tracing, is an essential step in breaking the chain of disease transmission and ending an outbreak, according to the CDC. 

Another tool is the thermal scanner, a radar-like device used to detect people who have elevated temperatures, one of the symptoms of Ebola. People flying out of Africa have been subjected to thermal scans before they board a flight. But the effectiveness of this tool has been questioned, since a person can carry the Ebola virus for up to three weeks before symptoms, such as a high temperature, begin to appear.

Some have called the scanners psychologically reassuring, but not very effective in halting the spread of the disease. For that, you need an Ebola screening test -- which currently costs anywhere from $60 to $200 and takes about four hours to produce results. Just recently, however, a Harvard researcher and his team developed a prototype Ebola test that could detect the virus in 30 minutes and cost less than $1 to reproduce.

And if thermal scanners have limitations, you would assume it’s the same with satellites. But images from space can reveal patterns that could help predict where an outbreak might be happening before hard facts are available. Researchers at Virginia Tech, Harvard and Boston’s Children Hospital studied satellite images of hospital parking lots in South America during influenza outbreaks and were predicting peak periods for the flu with a reasonably good degree of accuracy. While the situation in Liberia and Sierra Leone may look different from above, researchers say that different criteria can be used to look for signs of an Ebola outbreak. When data from satellite images is properly analyzed, models could show how the disease might move through a community.

But while technology can be an enormous help in tracking where the disease is moving, it cannot predict where it might emerge, according to Patrick Tucker, technology editor for Defense One. “You can model how a disease can move through a particular group of people," he told Bloomberg News, "but you can’t model with a high degree of credibility how those people will react to policies, regulations and restrictions."

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.