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Ebola has been causing, especially in West Africa, much heartache and has turned into an epidemic. Apart from Nigeria, the only country that appeared to have successfully dealt with the deadly disease, other countries seem to be struggling and the amounts of people dying are rising at an alarming rate. Up until 22 October 2014, according to World Health Organisation, about 9915 cases had been reported with 5481 laboratory confirmed cases and about 4555 total deaths.
Since the epidemic first came to the world’s attention, technology has been finding ways to either combat or manipulate the chaos it has caused. So what has technology done to help fight or manipulate Ebola?
The first technology to emerge in fighting Ebola was the text-message-based Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (Tera) system in Sierra Leone. The system emerged in 2013 after mobile operator Airtel agreed to install the necessary equipment in the wake of the country’s worst cholera outbreak.
There are plans to extend the system to other countries within nine months. The nine month period is a long period considering that the Ebola appears to be spreading quickly is because the system requires co-operation of local mobile networks and authorities. The countries that are set to get the Tera system are Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mali and Benin.
“It’s been doing an excellent job in Sierra Leone, sending out in the region of 2 million messages per month, helping the communities there to prepare themselves, try to avoid getting infected, and then if they do, to know what to do about it,” explained Robin Burton from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Tera allows for Red Cross and Red Crescent charities to send SMS messages to every switched-on mobile in a specific area by drawing its shape on a computer-generated map. The system also sends relevant replies to incoming texts.
Tera was originally developed in 2010 in Haiti following an earthquake that shook the Carribbean country, leaving the country in ruins and displacing a lot of Haiti citizens.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his physician wife Priscilla Chan have donated US$25 million to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In a post Zuckerberg written on his Facebook wall, the hoodied one outlined his reasons for donating:
“We need to get Ebola under control in the near term so that it doesn’t spread further and become a long term global health crisis that we end up fighting for decades at large scale, like HIV or polio,”
Other technology moguls that have donated money to the fight against Ebola, include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which donated US$50-million. Gates’ Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen meanwhile donated US$9-million.
Other donations have come in the form of mobile phones. Samsung has donated 3 000 smartphones to support the ongoing fight against Ebola. The smartphones were going to be donated 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.
The donated Galaxy S3 Neo smartphones will be used in 60 Ebola medical clinics in three worst hit African countries, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The donation has been a step in the right direction in helping UN’s Smart Health Pro mobile data and quarantined patients can contact their families using the devices. All donated smartphones will be destroyed once the virus has subsided.
Samsung’s chief Korean rival LG has meanwhile donated 2 000 smartphones to the United Nations. According to LG, the smartphones will be will be going to healthcare professionals and other key personnel who have been dispatched to affected areas. LG also explained that the smartphones will allow for seamless communication between the teams on the ground, focusing on medical data gathering, monitoring and planning.
Of course, one of the most important ways technology can be used in the fight against Ebola is in providing information. You only have to look at the damage done in some of the worst-affected countries by misinformation to see why making sure that people know everything they need to about Ebola is so important.
In South Africa for instance, Rubric, a global language service provider, has donated its translation services to Wikimedia ZA to provide South Africans with essential health information on Ebola, should the disease find its way here from West Africa.
South Africans can get advice on how to prevent and recognise the symptoms of infection on Wikipedia by searching ‘Ebola’ and then choosing a translation in one of the country’s local language Wikipedias from the dropdown menu.
Tech as a dark force
Unfortunately technology is also being used to prey on people’s fears around Ebola. There have been reports of a virus sent via email. Users get an email claiming to be from the World Health Organisation offering “informative and prevention” tips about Ebola. Clicking the link gives the user a digital infection. The spam email installs malware, giving the cybercriminals access to computers, including logging key presses, capturing video from webcams and stealing passwords.
The email reads:
“There is an outbreak of Ebola and other diseases around that you know nothing about. Download the World Health Organization file for more information on how to stay safe from Ebola and other preventable diseases. We care.”
image by Red Cross