Cell Phone Records Track Malaria in Kenya

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Malaria has been fought with mosquito nets, medication, and now—cell phones.

Cell phone data was used to track the travel patterns of about 15 million people in Kenya, which ultimately provided clues as to how malaria spreads via humans in the country.

A study released today in the journal Science found that a popular travel route for malaria starts in the country’s Lake Victoria region in the western part of the country and goes east toward the capital, Nairobi.

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"This is the first time that such a massive amount of cell phone data—from millions of individuals over the course of a year—has been used, together with detailed infectious disease data, to measure human mobility and understand how a disease is spreading," senior author Caroline Buckee said in a news release. Buckee is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2010 there were some 216 million cases of malaria that caused about 665,000 deaths. Of those deaths, 90 percent occurred over most of the African continent, the majority targeting children under the age of five.

Malaria is spread via the bites of mosquitos infected with a parasite, and early symptoms are flulike and include fever, nausea and aches. If left untreated it can be fatal.

Since 2000, death rates have dropped by a third in Africa thanks to better prevention and control programs, but the region remains a hot spot.

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For the study researchers used cell phone records from almost 15 million Kenyans plus a map of malaria frequency to determine the likelihood of infection among residents and among visitors traveling to specific areas.

They identified two ways that parasites could be imported: people traveling to regions where malaria is pervasive could become infected while there and carry the parasite back home, and people who are already infected could carry the parasite with them when they went to other settlements in the country.

The largest number of imported infections seemed to wind up in Nairobi, as people who were infected returned there from Lake Victoria or the coastal area.

It’s believed that this use of cell phone data plus information about malaria rates will help public health officials see how the disease is spread and assist them in managing malaria cases. On a local scale, the authors said, this would allow high-transmission areas to be treated with insecticide, the removal of mosquito habitats, and the use of bed nets.

This isn’t the only way cell phones are being used to battle malaria. Last month AFP reported that cell phone texts are being used in a pilot program in Cambodia to report new cases of the disease.

Do you think cell phone records should be used to track diseases? Let us know in the comments.

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Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine | TakePart.com

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