Get your tweet on in support of World TB Day

It’s World Tuberculosis Day today, 24 March 2011 and Lancet Laboratories in South Africa has launched a Twitter campaign to help raise awareness about the disease by motivating Twitter fans to use the hashtag #WorldTBDay in their tweets.

The online campaign moves beyond the usual poster and leaflet health-education campaign and is intended to help start a conversation about TB, between ordinary South Africans, by targeting key members of the South African Twitter community, the organisation said.

The campaign is motivating Twitter users to take part by offering one free sputum ZN test for every five times the hash tag #WorldTBDay is used in South Africa. The test will be processed in a laboratory that is SANAS accredited, meeting rigorous international standards, and TB test results can “potentially” be provided within one day.

Lancet will be giving away 100 free TB tests in total, and “acknowledges that offering 100 free TB tests is not going to eradicate TB”, but stresses that it is a useful new way of getting people to talk about TB and raising awareness, which is the ultimate goal.

The campaign is intended to motivate the Twitter community by empowering them to generate a free test by ‘spreading the word’ and getting fellow tweeters to raise awareness by using the hash tag, Lancet explains. If this campaign is a success the organisation will commit to continuing the programme and raising more awareness in years to come.

The South African government health department is also embracing mobile technology and celebrating World TB Day with the announcement this week that they will make increasing use of technology such as smart phones and online maps in the fight against TB.

A pilot project is being introduced in KwaZulu-Natal for health workers to use smartphones to collect patient information, said Claudio Marra of the University Research Corporation, an American NGO working with the department.

The data collection would work through Google Earth, which would be used to locate patients’ homes with the address the patients had given the health facility.

This information would then be sent to sent to a health worker with a smart phone, which is a phone with an “electronic TB register” in it, to direct the worker to the right address, Marra said.

“When the health worker gets there he/she would be able to send all the patients’ information immediately to the [health] department’s server,” Marra explained.

The department will then also use the opportunity to check on all the people the patient has come into contact with, to try and prevent the further spread of the disease as it is contagious.

The homes of those still waiting for their results, and those on treatment, would be marked on the electronic system. Marra said this would help centralise patient information, and link the data to their addresses.

It is not clear exactly what kind of technology the smart phones will be using, or what kinds of mobile phones they are, but the technology will primarily be used to speed up the process of locating patients and collecting data rather than diagnosis.

The use of Google Earth, transmission of data back to the department’s server, and term “smartphone” indicates that it will be some sort of web portal/service. Data transfer enabled mobile service provider networks are however largely not available in rural areas of South Africa, where awareness and treatment is most needed, and networks can only manage basic calls and text messages, so it will be interesting to see how practical this system will really be in the field.

If the system works, the health department could potentially have a more accurate measurement of where the most TB cases are, and could then focus on those areas by building more clinics and creating awareness.

TB is a preventable and easily treatable disease, but if it’s not diagnosed and treated it can lead to serious illness and death in some cases. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2009 there were 400 000 South Africans known to be infected with TB, and a further 490 000 diagnosed that same year. There are about two billion people in the world today infected with the bacteria that can lead to TB, and of these one in 10 will develop the disease.

A precedent for using smart phones in rural areas of Africa has been set in recent years, and the potential for this kind of technology to be used to collect data and samples, and speed up the treatment process of diseases in humans like malaria, TB and HIV/Aids, as well as those in livestock.

By way of example, researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles in the USA are adapting cell phones with a clip-on component and turning them into microscopes, in a process appears as easy as adding gadgets to the camera area of a cell phone. The modifications then turn the phone into a tool that can spot clusters of tuberculosis cells and reliably identify malaria parasites for example.

The technology is there, but it does however need reliable mobile service providers with the capabilities to support smart phone data transfer, which is the greater immediate challenge to overcome for these kinds of initiatives.

Catherine Murray


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