Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The smartphone is also helping to solve some serious problems. Here's a case in point. Two years ago in Pakistan's Punjab Province, there was a deadly epidemic of dengue fever. About 20,000 people contracted dengue, which is spread by mosquitoes.

This year, numbers are way down - just dozens of cases. And the credit goes to a campaign that utilizes mobile phones. Here's reporter Beenish Ahmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING CARTS)

BEENISH AHMED, BYLINE: A line of men in black rain boots push several trash carts through the archways and alleys of Lahore's congested old city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING CARTS)

AHMED: They stop at an open sewer along a neighborhood street and set to work pulling up plates, shoes, bricks, and anything else that might block the flow of wastewater. That's because standing water is prime breeding ground for the mosquitoes that spread dengue fever.

But sanitation worker Tanvir Channa doesn't think about his role in combating a deadly epidemic.

TANVIR CHANNA: (Through translator) We pull up the trash, put it in the basket, tie up the bag, and take it away. Whatever I do, it's just to provide for my kids.

AHMED: To make sure workers like Channa don't skip out and allow the dengue mosquitoes to breed, they're followed by an investigator armed with a smartphone, who tracks their progress. In this case, it's a tall man in a plaid shirt, named Mohammad Saleem Taqi.

MOHAMMAD SALEEM TAQI: (Through translator) I open this application called Clean Lahore, to enter a field activity. I take pictures before and after the work is done, enable location services to map this spot, and then send it on to my supervisors.

AHMED: Channa says having his picture taken on the job seemed strange at first.

TAQI: (Foreign language spoken)

AHMED: But he likes that the monitoring program shows supervisors that he's on the job and can't be marked absent. Across town, a similar scene plays out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

AHMED: A pair of men tip a bucket of water into a small pond at the center of a neighborhood park. In flow dozens of tiny tilapia, a fish with a taste for mosquito larvae. As the two men work, an inspector snaps a photo of them with the Clean Lahore app. All of this is a part of a public health campaign managed by Umar Saif.

UMAR SAIF: So let me tell you the story from the top.

AHMED: It begins in the summer of 2011.

SAIF: What happened is that Punjab was hit with one of the worst dengue epidemics anywhere in the world.

AHMED: Government officials realized they would need to work harder, and smarter, to prevent another epidemic. That's why they turned to Saif, a computer scientist. He developed a smartphone app to track all efforts to prevent the disease - with striking success.

SAIF: If Punjab averted another epidemic in 2012, it didn't happen by accident. You know, 67,000 different prevention activities were performed, and were photo-logged by smartphones.

AHMED: While experts suggest the decline in cases might be due, in part, to environmental factors, the government's prevention campaign has been widely lauded. That's because Saif took the mobile program a step further. He points to a Google Map image of Lahore. The map correlates larvae citations and actual dengue cases.

SAIF: So there's a clear pattern of disease outbreak that corresponds to reports of positive dengue larva.

AHMED: These visuals helped Saif home in on problem areas and predict future outbreaks, all this while treating another issue that plagues Pakistan: entrenched public sector corruption.

SAIF: People who have not done - maybe for decades - work as well as they were supposed to do. So the government needs to therefore now use technology in innovative ways to monitor its own functions.

PATTY MECHAEL: This is quite remarkable.

AHMED: Patty Mechael studies the use of mobile phones to meet public health goals. This is the first time she's seen phones used to track an infectious disease.

MECHAEL: It's really up to the health sector to imagine what it needs, and then think about where mobile technology can actually play a role in solving, you know, some of those problems.

AHMED: And combating dengue fever in Pakistan is just one such example.

For NPR News, I'm Beenish Ahmed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.