Technology, a great ally against ebola

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Today Teresa Romero, the Spanish nursing assistant identified as the first person to contract the Ebola infection outside Africa, fights for her life under the watchful eye of doctors, the media and social networks.

Citizens around the world wake up every day searching for the latest news and information about Ebola in search engines like Google, social networks like Twitter or traditional media such as radio, newspapers or the TV. All kinds of questions are raised. Which countries have been affected? Will Ebola come to my country? What is the real risk of contracting Ebola? Is there a cure? These are recurring questions which are on everyone’s mind.

The big difference with tackling this serious disease compared to similar cases from our history, is that in today’s society we have a great ally on our side. This ally is technology.

How do technological advances play a role in the fight against Ebola?

Nine days before the World Health Organization (WHO) formally announced the Ebola epidemic last December, Health Map, a website that uses sophisticated algorithms that process data from tens of thousands of local government, social networks, websites and medical websites to identify signs of emerging infectious diseases in record time, reported cases of a “mystery haemorrhagic fever” in Guinea.

This powerful system, managed by experts from Boston, is able to keep track of new cases, deaths and emerging trends that the virus takes. The “mysterious disease” has been defined as the deadliest disease to humans in modern times with a mortality rate of 25 to 90{20156fe61baea400d2663eb990f17abdabeb6ef183a2129287a793abd8ac1d8a}. The current outbreak, however, has seen the mortality rate reach 70{20156fe61baea400d2663eb990f17abdabeb6ef183a2129287a793abd8ac1d8a}.

Almost a year later, with more than 8,300 people in West Africa having contracted the disease, more than 4,000 deaths and the first cases of infection confirmed in Europe and the USA, scientists, medical professionals, researchers and government officials around the world look to technology to try and offer different solutions:

New mobile applications to inform users about the disease

“About Ebola”, “Ebola News” and “Ebola Prevention” are some of the most unusual, yet useful, mobile applications to hit smart phones. They provide users with free information generated by the WHO and other organisations updating citizens with real-time information and tips to detect and prevent the spread of Ebola.

Data analysis tools to track disease

Other organisations are also playing an important role in analysing big data in order to spot trends and predict how the spread of Ebola will evolve. The Swedish Flowminder foundation, whose mission is to improve public health through collaboration with NGOs and government agencies, is currently collecting and analysing data from mobile phones and satellite data. The foundation recently analysed data extracted from mobile telephone operators in West Africa to point out the places at greatest risk of an outbreak. By analysing the location of sharp increases in calls to Ebola helplines, Flowminder is able to send the necessary resources and personnel to the area in an attempt to control the disease before it spreads.

Artificial intelligence

It has also emerged that experts have their eyes and hopes on the “Watson” IBM artificial intelligence supercomputer. Researchers working on Watson agree that after analysing all known facts about the disease, it could help professionals to find a cure and offer solutions in the best way to deal with Ebola.

Robotics

Along with Watson, we find “Little Moe”, a robot developed by the company Xenex, which is being used in 250 health centres in the United States for sterilizing rooms exposed to contamination by dangerous viruses like Ebola. Moving around the room, the robot emits pulses of ultraviolet light 1.5 times per second making it capable of killing the virus, significantly reducing the risk of infection.

These advances in collaborative technology in the development of new treatments for Ebola, such as ZMapp, TKM-Ebola or Brincidofovir, and in the design of sophisticated biohazard suits for medical professionals or the development of high precision devices, are a glimmer of hope in what is a world health epidemic. Technology has an increasingly important role to replay in the detection, prevention and cure of Ebola.