How Smartphones Became Vital Tools Against Dengue In Pakistan : Shots - Health News Two years ago Pakistan's Punjab province was hit with one of the world's worst dengue outbreaks. This year the number of recorded cases has plummeted. Many leaders credit a mobile phone app that tracks mosquito populations and city workers' efforts to contain them.
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How Smartphones Became Vital Tools Against Dengue In Pakistan

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How Smartphones Became Vital Tools Against Dengue In Pakistan

How Smartphones Became Vital Tools Against Dengue In Pakistan

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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.


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.


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.


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