Mobile phones and disease prevention in China

August 16, 2010 at 12:02 am (Uncategorized)

I’m back.  I’m currently in the process of preparing for my comprehensive exams, figuring out my dissertation topic, pushing out my first academic publication, all while observing the fast for Ramadan. So needless to say it’s been a hectic month.  Anyway, back to the main topic of this blog.  So we all know that mobile phones are pretty useful when it comes to information spreading during political crisis, etc; however, the technology is also being used to stop the spread of infectious diseases like in China and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

Yang, C., Yang, J., Luo, X., & Gong, P. (2009). Use of mobile phones in an emergency reporting system for infectious    disease surveillance after the Sichuan earthquake in China. Bull World Health Organ, 87, 619-623.

 On May 12, 2008 an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit the north-western part of Sichuan Province, China. More than 80,000 people were killed with another 5 million more left homeless. As with any other developing nation, the spread of infectious diseases becomes a top concern within populations displaced by natural disasters. Therefore a functioning surveillance system is needed for disaster hit areas to help reduce the risk of epidemics.
            This particular area of China had been using a broadband/ dial-up internet connection; however, the system was paralyzed during the quake. While repairs were being made on the system, The Chinese Center for Disease Control (China CDC) developed an emergency system based on mobile phones. The mobile phone emergency system was developed by China CDC and other local CDC offices in 5 steps:

1.)    Select mobile phones and a network supplier
2.)    Developing a reporting system
3.)    Identifying areas where the mobile phone could be used
4.)    Distributing the phones and providing training
5.)    Applying quality control measures

Hi-Tech Wealth, a domestic mobile phone manufacturer, donated light-powered phones: A6000 models; GSM/GPRS duel bands). See picture of phone below.

In addition China Mobile was chosen as the carrier because of their extensive coverage in disaster zones.

The reporting system was based on SMS or text messaging. A field epidemiologist in the field is able to input 16 categories of information about a case including name of patient, age, diagnosis, etc. The information is then sent as an encrypted text message to the national database.  In 2-3 minutes a trained person can report the case, which is then analyzed by China CDC. The phones were distributed to areas hardest hit by the earthquake. And finally quality control in the form of paperwork filled out by the field doctor. This information was sent to the CDC and verified. Random checks were done throughout the sample to ensure that the information was accurate.
            The results of this study found that mobile phones indeed help restore the reporting capacity of health organizations in times of disaster. They found that the system met all their expectations in 3 ways:

1.)    It was easy to navigate, taking less than 30 minutes for the average worker to run

2.)    Network provided extensive coverage, 97% of the Chinese population

3.)    The mobility of the system allowed health care workers to move to relocated people and still have the capability to report on cases.

Essentially, they found that mobile phones provided a great way to access and send information to stop the spread of epidemics during natural disasters. In addition, the mobile phone is also a great backup for countries with internet-based surveillance systems.

Here’s an interesting video on how the cell phone can help prevent infectious diseases.  My next posting will take a look at how communication technologies compare within and across crises.


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