Cell phones help track malaria

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The humble cell phone has become a new weapon in the fight against malaria.  Researchers from Harvard University have discovered that the spread of malaria in Kenya can be tracked with the use of text messages and phone calls from as many as 15 million new and old cell phones.

Before mobile phones, we had proxies for human travel,” says Caroline Buckee, a Harvard School of Public Health assistant professor of epidemiology who was also the author of the study.  “But now that mobile phones have spread throughout the world, we can start using these massive amounts of data to quantify human movements on a larger scale and couple this data with knowledge of infection risk.”

Buckee and her colleagues made use of cell phone records from the June of 2008 and 2009 in order to track both the origin and the timing of calls and texts from up to 15 million cell phone subscribers in Kenya.  The volume of subscribers in a specific region was then compared to the known prevalence of malaria in the area and by studying networks of parasite and human movement, the team is then able to determine the main sources of malaria and who is most at risk of infection.

The results, which were published in the journal Science last Thursday, suggest that the transmission of malaria in Kenya is largely caused by travelling from Lake Victoria, which is situated on the western edge of the country, to the capital city of Nairobi, with human carriers outpacing mosquitoes in endemic regions.