With Ebola on the front page of almost every newspaper these days, I wanted to take a look at the role that communication technology can play in fighting the disease. It turns out that the biggest impact is surprising. You’re probably thinking that it can help track outbreaks, communicate between affected areas and get useful preventive information into everyone’s hands. And, yes, it can, and that’s so important. But the real life-saving potential is not that.
With laboratories around the world scrambling to find a vaccine (a cure would be really good, too, but let’s stick with vaccines for now), one important aspect is being overlooked by most of us. Let’s say that a vaccine is developed, and I’m sure that it will be. How do we get it to the affected areas? Most of them are in rural Africa, and while it’s possible to get there, obviously, it’s not that easy. Or fast, which is important, not only because of the staggering number of daily deaths, but also because vaccines deteriorate rapidly with time, and they need to be kept cold. Rural Africa is not awash with refrigerators, or power sources to make them work. The “cold chain”, the temperature-controlled distribution of vaccines, is an essential part of disease control. Without it, a large percentage of the vaccines, even if they get to their intended destination, are useless.
Enter: communication technology. The main technological advance in sub-Saharan Africa over the past couple of years has been the spread of the use of mobile phones. Cellphone towers are springing up like mushrooms: approximately 70% of sub-Saharan Africa has mobile phone coverage, and the percentage is expected to increase rapidly. Cell towers have a usually reliable power supply, often from the telecom companies’ generators rather than the sometimes frail state infrastructure. And because the telecom companies reasonably expect growth in demand, the generators usually have excess capacity.
Energize the Chain was set up in 2010 by a Philadelphia-based team of doctors and researchers to develop a chain of cell phone generator-powered refrigeration sites, especially for vaccines. So far they have 110 working sites in Zimbabwe, with 100 more planned for this year, and it is only a matter of (hopefully not very much) time before the network spreads throughout the developing world. The technology is not without difficulties: often cell phone towers are built on high ground for better reception, which makes them hard to get to. But the idea and the process is a huge step forward in preventing disease. As well as saving lives, an improvement in disease prevention would be a significant boost to the economic development of a region, which in turn would make it easier to prevent diseases, which would help economic development, and so on. The good that this could do in the world…
Ebola is the problem making the headlines today, but it’s not the only danger. Pneumonia, tuberculosis and measles kill tens of millions of people every year, much of which could be prevented with a more efficient cold chain. Communication technology is affecting virtually all sectors through improved information collection and delivery. That is fairly obvious. Piggybacking on this technology to solve a vaccine delivery problem, that’s creative. Energize the Chain has come up with an ingenious solution to a frightening situation, that will help everyone. Because as the headlines remind us every day, disease control really is becoming everyone’s problem.