The World Health Organization (WHO) launched a mobile phone app to help contact tracers monitor cases of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the organization announced this week.
The Ebola-affected region of DRC – mostly contained to North Kivu and Ituri provinces in the nation’s east – have suffered decades of guerrilla warfare and lack significant infrastructure to allow for orderly contact tracing, necessary to contain the spread of the virus. Until recently, following up with those impacted by Ebola was a difficult task for contract tracers.
“We used to use paper, filling out a form each day for every contact,” Kavira Kasomo, a contract tracer, said in a WHO article announcing the app. “Then at the end of the day, we took the papers to our supervisors, who alerted the doctor if one of the contacts had signs of Ebola. It took a long time.”
Walking around neighborhoods carrying folders of documents would also raise suspicions from the local community, Kasomo added, with people fearful of being taken away and quarantined if they show any signs of the disease.
“Sometimes when I was carrying papers, I would be chased away, and then I wouldn’t be able to go back for days,” added Jean-Baptiste Kahehoro, another contact tracer.
Go.Data, a new application designed by the WHO, allows information they gather to be sent directly to their supervisors for analysis, which they argue is a “major innovation in outbreak investigation tools for field data collection.”
“It is particularly focused on case and contact data collection and management,” says Armand Bejtullahu, the project leader at WHO and one of the leading designers of the app. “This allows the software to produce outputs, such as contact follow-up forms and dynamic visualization of chains of transmission.”
Other benefits of the technology are explained in detail by the WHO:
As well as speeding up contact tracing, Go.Data helps field teams make sure contacts are not lost. Sometimes, contact tracers are not able to visit all their contacts, perhaps because insecurity in the area prevents them from accessing a household or because of other issues. “When a contact is missed,” says Dr Papy Musakasombo, the head of the Mabolio health zone, “we can see that early enough to do something about it that same day.”
For the contact tracers, using a phone means they are less likely to encounter problems in the community. “Everyone has a mobile phone,” says Josué Nebese Kaseme, who is Kanyere’s supervisor. “It’s much more discreet and easier than carrying around a lot of paper forms.” It also helps the contact feel at ease, he adds.
For epidemiologists, the visual representation of the transmission chain created by the Go.Data software is particularly valuable. It allows them to understand more easily and comprehensively how the disease spreads: which activities, environments and types of interaction are associated with high or low transmission rates. This means they can tailor the intervention to more quickly interrupt the spread.
The app will soon be rolled out to other parts of the Congo in an effort to improve treatment of the country’s current Ebola outbreak, which has affected around 3150 people (over 2,000 of whom have died) since it was declared on August 1st, 2018. However, the app’s designers envision it eventually being used to treat all types of health epidemics all over the world.
“The Ebola outbreak in the DRC is our major priority,” says Bejtullahu. “Going forward, hopefully Go. Data can really revolutionize the way we tackle epidemics everywhere.”