Mobile Phone Data Tracks Spread Of Malaria.

A recent study in Kenya has provided a new angle on how to use mobile phone data to improve public health becoming the biggest ever attempt to use such data as an epidemiological tool.

Between June 2008 and June 2009 researchers gathered the data from over 11,900 phone towers, specifically focusing on the movements of 15 million Kenyans and then mapping the gathered data against all recorded outbreaks of Malaria during that time. The study found that during that period the outbreaks of the disease originated in Kenya’s Lake Victoria spreading east toward the capital, Nairobi. Researchers’ believe that the spread of the disease could be contained/averted by focusing health officials` efforts on the lake area.

Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of authors of the study quotes…

“If you are going to try and eliminate malaria, you`ve really got to target interventions where most infections originate otherwise you are mopping up problems in areas where the infections didn`t originate.”

Malaria kills approximately 1,000000 people every year, most of those are children under the age of 5 in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya the disease killed over 30,000 people in 2010 and although research shows it to be decreasing in some areas, deaths are rising in others.

The study (conducted by, amongst others, the Carnegie Mellon University and the Kenya Medical Research Institute) aims to eliminate the disease by firstly controlling the spread. One researcher quoted, “Human travel is a key factor in the spread of malaria, but travel patterns are not well understood in many parts of the world. Describing the actual movement patterns is thus an important step.”

Not all species of Mosquitos around the world carry the disease but the danger is that infected travellers, specifically those who are immune and could travel without feeling symptoms could be bitten elsewhere thus allowing the disease to spread.

Researchers are still working with Kenya’s Health Ministry to devise plans of action but say that in the meantime several general strategies are possible. One such strategy involves using the data to remind and pre-warn people who are traveling to infected/high-risk areas via text message, another is to build a variety of apps and services to provide medical information and reminders through mobile phones.


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