Workers inside a call center, where people can phone to state their concerns about the Ebola virus, in the city of  Monrovia, Liberia, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.
Workers inside a call center, where people can phone to state their concerns about the Ebola virus, in the city of Monrovia, Liberia, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.

Contact tracing has become a well-known term as the world learns more about the Ebola crisis and how to contain it.

It was through this method that people who came into contact with Liberian Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan were notified that they were exposed to the Ebola virus through having come into contact with him. 

Duncan died in a Dallas, Texas hospital on October 8.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Joel Selanikio says time is of the essence in getting communication out to people in a crisis situation such as the Ebola crisis.

Mobile data collection

His company, Magpi, uses a mobile data collection and messaging software tool that expedites vital information to people in Africa and other regions of the world, in crisis situations. 

“What Magpi does is it recognizes that within global health, for example during this Ebola outbreak, there’s a lot of information that needs to be collected,” said Selanikio.

“I’m sure that your listeners and viewers have heard of contact tracing at this point, something I think very few Americans were aware of before the case in Dallas.  The thing that has to happen in Dallas besides treating that poor man with Ebola, (referring to Thomas Eric Duncan who has since passed away), is to track down everyone who might have come into contact with him,” explained the infectious disease expert.

He further explained that in tracking down those people, the CDC develops a data base that collects the pertinent, detailed and vast information and history on each person, so that they can be monitored for changes over time.

“And unfortunately in most cases, and I’m sure in almost every single case in West Africa right now, that same kind of contact tracing, and other data collections activities are done on paper,” said Selanikio.

“Now you can imagine with the unbelievable time is of the essence situation that we have with Ebola, that spending three days typing that information into a computer just isn’t good enough.”

Response to Ebola

Contract tracing is one way in which to dramatically improve the speed and efficiency and the response to Ebola.

“What it means when you cut days and even weeks off the time required to do that contact tracing, is that there are people who, with a paper system and all those delays, would get Ebola, or who would not be identified or treated.  Essentially you could reach those people faster,” emphasized Selanikio.

Mobile phones have become so technologically advanced that they are closer to imitating a desktop or laptop computer than a basic landline telephone. 

Given this, they can also be used to provide a variety of communications functions and data collecting activities that could help save people’s lives.

“There are all sorts of things that we could do if for example, everybody in West Africa had a nice laptop computer connected to the internet. The fact is that the mobile phones these people have are not as capable as your laptop computer, or your iphone as doing those things, as collecting data, or doing education, but they’re better than nothing,” explained Selanikio.

Mobile phones

He said mobile phones allow health care workers to call people and alert people through text messaging of lab results, for example.  In addition mobile phones allow people living in hard to reach areas or villages to submit information via texting to health care workers about their symptoms.

“So if you think of all of the population of West Africa, and you think of all the mobile phones that they have, and there’s probably in the cities 100 percent of the population has a mobile phone. In the countryside it’s probably, 40 or 50 percent has a mobile phone. But everyone has access to one,” Selanikio highlighted.