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Using mobile phones to report malaria outbreaks in Africa has been stunningly effective — reducing the government response time to an outbreak from four weeks to three minutes, according to a new report.

HP, along with partners Positive Innovation for the Next Generation (PING) and Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), and mobile network provider MASCOM, announced the results of the first year of a mobile disease response pilot program last week.

“We see technology having a profound impact on disease surveillance, which has a highly antiquated process,” says Paul Ellingstad, HP’s director of global heath. Remote support

According to Ellingstad, it can take three to four weeks to send a list of sick patients to a district health clinic and then to the Ministry of Health of a respective country. Electronically automating disease surveillance speeds up the communication time to three minutes, meaning the government can immediately send bed nets and and alert citizens to take precautions.

Some 1,068 notifications were reported to Ministry of Health officials since the program first rolled out in June 2011 in Botswana’s Chobe region. Healthcare workers have been trained to use mobile devices to collect malaria data and report outbreaks to authorities.

The collected data is then plotted on a geo-tagged map, providing health workers context for their responses. Using the program’s technology, 89 potential outbreaks were identified during the pilot year.

Speed isn’t mobile’s only advantage to the dated paper process. Ellingstad says reporting potential cases of malaria has increased from about 20% to 93% compliance.

“This is an example of the role technology can play in fundamentally transforming and improving existing programs within the public health sector,” Ellingstad says. “What’s critical in doing so is partnering with governments and other leading NGOs to appropriately implement technology, rather than providing technology and letting the process sort itself out.”

HP and CHAI have also started working with Kenya’s Ministry of Health and are in talks with Mozambique’s government to continue their expansion. Kenya’s government is already using the platform to track the spread of 11 diseases, including malaria. Botswana’s government hopes to add another 16 diseases in the near future.

HP and PING plan to open another 20 health facilities in Botswana by June 1 and an additional 80 by October 2012. In August, the program will begin tracking other diseases, starting with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.

PING, a Botswana-based NGO, plans to develop a game-like mobile phone tutorial, to ease the training of new health workers.

When it comes to future uses of mobile phones in public health, Ellingstad says he feels like the sky’s the limit.

“Mobile phones in the health space feels like the Internet and e-commerce in 1994 and 1995,” he says. “Right now, we know it’s a connection point, since 5.7 billion people have access to a mobile phone. With that sort of pervasiveness, you can provide health information, education and prevention to millions at risk of death.”

How else do you see mobile phones being used in the global health space? Share your ideas in the comments. Remote support

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