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Mobiles can fasten malaria treatment: Bangla scientists

Feb 19, 2013

Mobile phones, together with local knowledge and field support, can help ensure effective diagnosis and treatment of malarial fever in remote rural areas, according to a study published by Bangladeshi scientists.



Employing mobile phones and a the knowledge of the local terrain can help fasten the recovery from a bout of malarial fever, a team of scientists from the Dhaka-based International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (ICDDR) and the US-based Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute have claimed. The findings from the two-year long research have been published in this month's issue of the Malaria Journal.

Researchers examined almost 1,000 phone calls to report suspected cases of malarial fever that were made over two years by inhabitants of the Chittagong Hillt Tracts, a hilly and forested part of the country bordering Mynamar and India, known for the highest malaria rates in Bangladesh.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts have been home to Bangladesh's most bloody internal conflict and the use of mobile phones was not permitted in the region for a long time as authorities suspected tribal guerrilla would use these to to coordinate their movements against the army.

Malaria poses significant challenges to Bangladesh's healthcare system, ranking as it does, third among major infectious diseases that lead to deaths. Prevalence of malaria is highly endemic in 13 of the country's 64 districts: Khagrachari, Rangamati, Bandarban, Cox's Bazar, Chittagong, Sylhet, Sunamganj, Moulovibazar, Habiganj, Mymensingh, Netrokona, Sherpur and Kurigram covering a population of over 11 million people.

About 98 per cent of Bangladesh's malaria cases are reported from these districts. The first three in the list lie in the Chittagong Hill Tracts while the next two within the jurisdiction of the Chittagong district.

The study was part of a wider research project on malaria epidemiology being carried out by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR) and the US-based Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute.

The researchers found that phone calls, that were made to locally recruited field workers or one of the members of the study team and then followed up by visits, were a useful way to detect and treat the disease in this community.

Although people could report suspected malaria to field workers when they visited local communities, a slightly greater number of suspected cases were reported using mobile phones. This led  researchers to conclude that the use of the mobiles phone had helped to increase the number of potential cases tested and treated.

The scientists  suggest that rapid diagnosis and treatment may help to lessen people's reliance on quacks, traditional healers, local medicine men or drug vendors. This, in turn would reduce the risk of incorrect results and inappropriate treatment — and the threat of drug resistance.

Science and development news portal, SciDev, quoted Wasif Ali Khan, lead author of the study and a researcher at the ICDDR saying that they also found that the proportion of confirmed malaria cases reported by mobile phones was higher in the most remote areas with no access to roads.

Khan added that the use of mobile phone technology has the potential to build awareness of malaria through community participation.

Jacob Khyang, manager of the field research in the Bandarban township in Chittagong Hill Tracts, told SciDev: "The use of mobile phones made our work very easy and diagnosis of the cases was also faster as we could reach the infected patients much quicker due to faster communications".

The researchers say that access to and use of mobile phones has "increased dramatically" in this area, as it has done in many remote areas of developing countries.

But because of limited mobile phone network coverage and the fact that only around a fifth of households owned at least one mobile phone, people in the study area often had to borrow phones or climb hills to get a signal needed to make calls.

Also, the study says that technology alone is insufficient and has to be paired with "on-the-ground knowledge of the area and the people", as was the case in this study.

Several mobile phone users in the region who spoke to SciDev.Net were positive about future healthcare delivery programmes to tackle malaria.

Pai Mong U, a resident of one neighbourhood of the Kuhalong area of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, said: "All the 15 cases detected in our area were reported by mobile phone. What else can you expect in such remote, hilly areas?"

He added that the residents received proper treatment thanks to the use of mobile phones and the ICDDR team.


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