How ICT is responding to Ebola in Africa

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Ebola West Africa
(Image Source: http://pbs.twimg.com)
Ebola West Africa
The current outbreak in west Africa, (first cases notified in March 2014), is the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976. (Image Source: http://pbs.twimg.com)

The Ebola outbreak has captured the attention of many large corporations within the ICT sector. Companies like MTN, SES, Liquid Telecom, Econet, IBM, Airtel, LG and Samsung have all responded to the outbreak in a meaningful and impactful way.

While Ebola is becoming a top priority for ICT companies within Africa, the virus has unfortunately spread internationally.

In order to tackle the epidemic, MTN recently invited over 219 million customers across Africa and the Middle East to join hands with the company in a 3-month campaign, starting 1 December, to raise funds for a “United Against Ebola” initiative.

According to MTN, it has committed US$ 10 million and is now inviting customers to participate in an SMS campaign to donate a minimum of US$ 1. In addition to this, MTN has also collaborated with African-based musicians in order to produce an inspirational song, which will feature on the MTN Play Store. According to MTN, all proceeds from sales, post publishing rights and subscription payments, will be donated to the AU campaign. MTN has been an integral part of efforts to tackle the spread of Ebola in countries where the company operates, with special emphasis on Guinea-Conakry and Liberia.

SES has also joined in the fight against Ebola. SES has gone ahead and launched an Ebola-focused education channel to be broadcast via satellite in West Africa. According to SES, the channel, called “Fight Ebola”, will be transmitted from the ASTRA 2F satellite at 28.2 degrees East and from SES-5 at 5 degrees East. The project aims at informing populations in affected areas about the nature and dangers of the disease and how to fight it.

Ibrahima Guimba-Saidou, Senior Vice President Commercial Africa at SES, stated that: “Through the channel we hope to further educate people. Many people do not understand this disease and therefore, tragically, do not seek the medical care they need.”

Moving over to Liquid Telecom, in Rwanda, the company has donated USD 250, 000 towards the prevention of Ebola. According to the company, the donation was handed over to Rwanda’s ministry of health. The donation is expected to supplement the government’s prevention plan.

The funds will be used in strengthening capacity through medical, social prevention and mobilisation and awareness campaigns. Liquid Telecom Group CEO for East Africa Sam K. Nkusi said the donation is in the spirit of ensuring public safety.

Moving over to Zimbabwe, Econet has set up an Ebola Response Taskforce. The company revealed that the taskforce is made up of doctors as well as specialists who will essentially report to a working party who are dealing with similar efforts in countries such as Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Lesotho, and Burundi.

Econet official Douglas Mboweni stated that: “The Econet Wireless operation was directed by our founder Strive Masiyiwa in order to set up an Ebola Response Task Force to work with the authorities in the countries in which Econet operates.”

“To fight Ebola, you have to go to the source, but you also have to prepare for potential outbreak in other countries. We, as a group, are involved in both efforts,” Moboweni concluded.

Looking at the bigger picture of Ebola in West Africa is Airtel, IBM Research Africa and Kenya’s Echo Mobile. These companies have joined forces and created a variety of initiatives to tackle the deadly disease.

These initiatives include:

– A citizen engagement and analytics system in Sierra Leone that enables communities affected by Ebola to communicate their issues and concerns directly to the government;

– A donation of IBM Connections technology in Nigeria to strengthen the Lagos State government’s preparedness for future disease outbreaks;

– A global platform for sharing Ebola-related open data.

These efforts combine expertise from IBM’s global network of research labs with the company’s years of experience in humanitarian disaster response by applying mobile technology, data analytics and cloud computing to help governments and relief agencies as they seek to contain the deadly disease.

The work benefits from contributions from a number of partners including Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative, Cambridge University’s Africa’s Voices project, Airtel and Kenya’s Echo Mobile.

IBM’s Africa research lab, in collaboration with Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative, have developed a system that enables citizens to report Ebola-related issues and concerns via SMS or voice calls. It provides actionable insight to the government about the day-to-day experiences of communities directly affected by Ebola to help improve its strategy for containing the disease.

Samsung and LG have also stepped forward in order to tackle Ebola. Samsung Electronics revealed in October 2014 that it will be donating 3000 smartphones, worth about USD 1 million (ZAR 10,9 million) to support the ongoing fight against Ebola. The smartphones donated by Samsung have gone through the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA), and will be used in the Humanitarian Connectivity Project, the UN’s IT project that utilises mobile devices to provide humanitarian support in disaster areas.

From LG’s side, the company has donated 2000 smartphones to the United Nations, in order to help in the fight against the Ebola virus in West Africa.

According to LG, the smartphones will be going to healthcare and other key personnel who have been dispatched to affected areas. LG also added that the smartphones will allow for communication between the teams on the ground, focusing on medical data gathering, monitoring and planning.

According to The World Health Organisation (WHO), the Ebola virus causes an acute, serious illness which is often fatal if untreated. Ebola virus disease (EVD) first appeared in 1976 in 2 simultaneous outbreaks, one in Nzara, Sudan, and the other in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter occurred in a village near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.

The current outbreak in west Africa, (first cases notified in March 2014), is the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976. There have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined. It has also spread between countries starting in Guinea then spreading across land borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia, by air (1 traveller only) to Nigeria, and by land (1 traveller) to Senegal.

The most severely affected countries, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have very weak health systems, lacking human and infrastructural resources, having only recently emerged from long periods of conflict and instability. On August 8, the WHO Director-General declared this outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

A separate, unrelated Ebola outbreak began in Boende, Equateur, an isolated part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The virus family Filoviridae includes 3 genera: Cuevavirus, Marburgvirus, and Ebolavirus. There are 5 species that have been identified: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Taï Forest. The first 3, Bundibugyo ebolavirus, Zaire ebolavirus, and Sudan ebolavirus have been associated with large outbreaks in Africa. The virus causing the 2014 west African outbreak belongs to the Zaire species.

Researchers are also looking to Nigeria for technology to suppress the Ebola threat. Following cases of the Ebola virus in Spain, researchers are looking to Nigeria’s utilisation of 21st Century technology to study exactly how Africa’s most populous country was able to contain the deadly disease.

The Ebola outbreak hit Nigeria in July when Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American, flew into Lagos plagued by the virus, contagious and nearing his last days. The initial outbreak fueled health officials’ concern about the country’s ability to control the virus. After all, Lagos is Africa’s largest city and a major transportation hub.

On August 8, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan declared a national emergency. In response, health officials distributed informational leaflets and posted billboards in multiple local languages to educate Nigerian citizens on preventive measures and virus symptoms. Health officials immediately understood their main priority was to track any individual that came into contact with the index case. Officials placed Sawyer in isolation and started tracking down every person he had recently come in contact with.

All who came in contact with Sawyer – more than 280 residents – were required to provide Nigerian authorities with updates twice-a-day about their current health status. Individuals who displayed symptoms or failed to respond were checked on by a neighborhood network or health workers. In total, contact officials made more than 18,500 home visits to the potentially exposed.

Through all of this, Nigeria focused on technology as a critical and proactive tool to help combat the spread of the virus. Health workers monitoring suspected cases armed themselves with mobile phones and an Android application that helped reduce reporting time, which can normally take up to 12 hours. The technology decreased reporting time to six hours before being reduced to almost nothing.

The app and phones that made the real-time updates possible were provided by eHealth and Information Systems Nigeria, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based non-profit research company that operates in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. A group of volunteers partnered with the government and created Ebola Alert, which used Facebook and Twitter to educate Nigerians about the illness. Google Inc.’s Nigerian unit organised training sessions for journalists on how to use Google Trends to identify the top questions the public had about the disease.

Laboratory technicians conducting tests were also given tablets to scan and upload results to the emergency center data base. In turn, field teams received text-message alerts on their phones informing them of the results immediately.

After more than two months of closely monitoring the situation, Nigerian health officials were confident that the virus had been contained. The Nigerian government remains strongly committed to providing guidance and expertise to other countries that are battling the virus.

According to WHO, it is thought that fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family are natural Ebola virus hosts. Ebola is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines found ill or dead or in the rainforest.

Ebola then spreads through human-to-human transmission via direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and with surfaces and materials (e.g. bedding, clothing) contaminated with these fluids.

Health-care workers have frequently been infected while treating patients with suspected or confirmed EVD. This has occurred through close contact with patients when infection control precautions are not strictly practiced.

Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can also play a role in the transmission of Ebola. People remain infectious as long as their blood and body fluids contain the virus.

Facebook’s internet.org app is also making an impact when it comes to containing the Ebola outbreak. Individuals who use the app can access critical information regarding the Ebola virus for free. The app is currently available in most parts of Africa, including: Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. The Ebola app has bee developed by the Praekelt Foundation in South Africa on behalf of Unicef.

Darryl Linington