In its World Malaria Report, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported about 216 million cases of the disease (and about 655,000 deaths) for 2010. Most of the victims lived in Africa and were quite young. "A child dies every minute from malaria" in Africa, the WHO stated. Those are grim figures, especially considering the availability of proven and effective techniques for reducing the spread of the disease. The agency has been able to focus attention on the issue in Africa, where the mortality rate has dropped 33 percent.
The key to better results is tracking not only the mosquitos carrying the disease, but also the human carriers. That's what a group of researchers from several institutions did in an innovative study combining maps of the disease with a map of people's movements derived from cellphone records. The researchers published their findings last month in Science (registration required).
"This is the first time that such a massive amount of cell phone data -- from millions of individuals over the course of a year -- has been used, together with detailed infectious disease data, to measure human mobility and understand how a disease is spreading," Caroline Buckee, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the authors of the study, said in a press release.
The amount of data the researchers worked with is certainly big -- calls and texts involving almost 15 million Kenyan mobile phone subscribers, nearly 12,000 cell towers, and 692 different settlements from June 2008 to June 2009. The researchers correlated that data with a 2009 map of malaria cases. On that basis, they were able to figure out the likelihood of infection for people passing through locations associated with the disease. According to the research, Nairobi is a hub for this kind of activity.
The map incorporating cellphone data identifies "source areas" and "sink areas" for malaria. The methods for preventing the spread of the disease differ in source and sink areas, as CNN reported. For source areas, the study's recommendations include "indoor residual spraying, vector habitat removal, insecticides, drug administration, and bed-net use." For sink areas, the recommendations revolve around human behavior: becoming aware of places to avoid or proceed cautiously. This type of activity is crucial to preventing the spread of the disease, because some infected people show no symptoms.
The researchers also said these techniques can prove helpful in battling other diseases. "As mobile phone data sets become increasingly available and representative of entire populations, we anticipate that studies like the one we present here will become common for understanding a range of different infectious diseases, as well as for gaining greater insight into human behavior on a population level."
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