Technology Response to Epidemics
Archie Modequillo (The Freeman) - February 19, 2020 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines — In the light of the deadly COVID-2019, for sure many people are wondering: In this age of great technological advancement, when mankind is already raring to inhabit other planets, why isn’t the age-old problem of contagious diseases on earth yet conquered? Could it be that the human race has just been too outward looking that it misses the very concerns close by that could potentially get in the way of its far-reaching sight? Have people been generally remiss on health matters to the point of courting their very self-destruction?

For now the answers to those questions matter less. What matters more is that there is a contagion that is spreading fast, already infecting multitudes and causing many deaths. Perhaps modern technology can help.

Early detection of disease outbreaks, using appropriate surveillance methods, is a basic principle for effective control of epidemics. In fact, modern technology has been tapped for comprehensive epidemic surveillance for many years already. There is a technology in place for early epidemic detection, the purpose of which is to minimize casualty from emerging infectious diseases.

For the most part, though, such high-level epidemic surveillance technology exists only in the administrative ranks of society. There is little of it that trickles down to the general population. Incidentally, data from individual members of a particular community can help a lot in monitoring – and even precluding – an epidemic in the area.

Technological innovations like the internet, social media, and phone apps can be, and actually are, used to detect and monitor disease outbreaks. The mobile phone technology, in particular, is an efficient means of health communication for epidemic surveillance, mitigation and response.  There are mobile apps for drawing data from the public and conveying information to responders.

In June-to-August 2018, the roster of available apps containing the words “epidemic,” “outbreak,” “pandemic,” “public health,” “infectious diseases,” “infection,” “bioterrorism,” and “surveillance” in Google Play and the App Store was reviewed. The apps were rated according to intended user, purpose, platform, functions, and number of downloads. A total of 106 apps emerged in an initial search, and of those 80 apps did not meet the selection criteria and were excluded.

Finally, 26 relevant surveillance apps, including 21 free of charge and five paid apps, were included in the review. Of these, 17 apps were for single-disease surveillance, seven apps for multiple-disease surveillance, and two apps for providing information on possible bioterrorism agents. The intended users varied from the general public (18 apps) to health practitioners (four apps) and the remaining four apps intended for both general public and health practitioners. The reviewed apps included real-time tracking in an interactive map, daily notification alerts, user function to report diseases and outbreaks, and multiple disease-tracking options.

There are actually enough health apps available – and new ones certainly being developed – for both laypeople and health professionals to use. And most of these apps are downloadable for free. The only question remaining is the degree of public participation. In short, health apps alone won’t do – it needs the human factor to make it work.

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