[health-vn] Disease maps can turn a crisis around
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Mon Mar 30 07:08:27 EST 2009
Disease maps can turn a crisis around
24 March 2009 by Linda Geddes
Magazine issue 2700. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
A Zimbabwean cholera patient sits in his bed at a hospital in Harare in 2009
(Image: Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty)
AID workers in Zimbabwe need all the help that they can get, so a website that
enables them to share information could be a big boost. Although Zimbabwe's
cholera outbreak is finally showing signs of abating, the site could help relief
groups as they attempt to rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure.
Launched this month, WikiMapAid will use collaborative wiki software to enable
humanitarian workers and others to add health, welfare and education information
to a version of Google Maps that can be viewed by anyone. The hope is that by
circumventing official information channels, a clearer picture of what is
happening on the ground can develop.
As went to press, a total of 89,649 cases of cholera and 4041 deaths had been
reported in Zimbabwe since the outbreak began in August. But new cholera cases
have fallen from around 8000 a week at the start of the year to 2151 in the
first week of March. A central control centre was also recently set up in Harare
with help from the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health.
Nevertheless, collecting data is still proving difficult, says Paul Garwood of
the World Health Organization. "A crucial element for the control of cholera in
Zimbabwe is the need to improve access to information, and the monitoring of new
cases and suspected cases in the country," he says. "Any system that improves
data collecting and sharing would be beneficial."
A crucial element for the control of cholera in Zimbabwe is improving access to
That's where WikiMapAid could help. Users can create markers to show the
location of places such as schools, hospitals or refugee centres, and they can
attach links to video or photos of that place, or post a report of the current
situation in the area. Similar services, such as the website HealthMap, have
recently been developed to map disease outbreaks around the world.
At the moment, WikiMapAid is focusing on Zimbabwe, and as well as schools and
suchlike, the tool lets you create other categories of marker to show not only
the location of cholera outbreaks but also places like food and water
distribution centres, says Rupert Douglas-Bate of Global Map Aid, the
organisation leading the project. Users can also create new marker categories to
show, say, public buildings, or to mark disease outbreaks in other countries.
The website is based on a Brazilian project called Wikicrimes, launched last
year, in which members of the public share information about crime in their
local area. It is designed to provide an alternative source of crime figures to
official statistics, which some suspect of government manipulation, according to
Vasco Furtado at the University of Fortaleza in Brazil, who developed the
software for Wikicrimes and WikiMapAid. "Wikicrimes is a way of showing citizens
that a particular area is a problem and to push the government to do something
about it," he says.
Douglas-Bate hopes a similar approach in Zimbabwe could help ensure that aid is
distributed correctly. "If we've all got the same situation report then we're
all singing from the same hymn sheet," he says. Also, if people feel they will
attract attention from the authorities by posting information, they could
perhaps get friends on the outside to post information for them, he says.
As with all wikis, the integrity of the data will depend on the people supplying
it. Although moderators will edit and keep track of postings, Douglas-Bate
admits unreliable reporting could be a problem. To lessen this risk, Furtado is
developing an algorithm that will rate the reputation of users according to
whether the information they post is corroborated, or contradicted. "But even if
we're just 80 per cent perfect, we will still have made a huge step forward in
terms of being able to galvanise public opinion, raise funds, prioritise need
and speed the aid on those who need it most," Douglas-Bate says.
Tracking a disease
Cholera breaks out in a remote part of a developing country and officials at the
district capital are swamped by requests for help. Healthcare workers are
scattered across the sparsely populated countryside and the situation is
changing hour by hour. How can health services keep track of the situation and
decide where to send aid first?
From this June a marriage of cellphone and internet technology may help them
cope. Cellphones are now widespread in many poor nations, and rather than health
workers communicating individually, the new service, called GeoChat, will create
an online map of their locations and any information they have to offer. Once up
and running, it will coordinate relief efforts and ensure people are aware of
who is doing what, and where.
Health workers start by creating a group on the GeoChat website that contains
the contact details of all relevant people. Once the group is set up, workers
will be able to text the other members via a special number. The text of each
message is also relayed to the GeoChat map and appears next to the sender's
location. Senders can identify their location by placing their coordinates or an
address at the start of the message.
Watching the map of the messages will be like tracking the epidemiology of a
disease in real time, says Eric Rasmussen of Innovative Support to Emergencies,
Diseases and Disasters, a non-profit organisation based in Palo Alto,
California, that developed GeoChat.
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