When I last spoke with cholera expert Eric Jorge Nelson, MD, PhD, he was about to field test a tool to help doctors in Bangladesh diagnose, treat and report cholera outbreaks in real time using a smartphone app. Now that this reporting system is up and running, he’s working to create similar reporting systems for doctors elsewhere. But, as he learned in the remote regions of Nepal, a high-tech approach isn’t always the best approach.
Nelson was invited to Nepal by his colleague Jason Andrews, MD, an infectious disease expert who works with the Dhulikhel Hospital, to share his expertise on recognizing, responding to and containing cholera outbreaks.
Like Bangladesh, Nepal has seasonal outbreaks of waterborne diseases, including cholera, Typhoid, viral hepatitis and dysentery, that ebb and flow with the monsoon seasons. What made the situation in Nepal urgent, Nelson told me, is that waterborne diseases can also arise after natural disasters, and a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal last spring and more than 100 aftershocks have hit the region since.
An added complication, Andrews explained, was that Nepal’s government wasn't scaling up waterborne disease surveillance in the rural areas following the earthquakes. “Our colleagues at Dhulikhel Hospital, by contrast, were extremely proactive and committed to setting up a system before an outbreak hit,” Andrews said.
Nelson was only in Nepal for about 48 hours, but during those two days he and Andrews began to tackle the problem of how to prevent a large-scale cholera outbreak there. At first, it seemed plausible that the smartphone app designed for Bangladesh would work in Nepal — but Nelson said they quickly realized that Nepal’s post-earthquake infrastructure wasn't suited to a smartphone reporting system.
"There were few resources in Nepal and little time to ramp-up a reporting system,” Nelson said. “Charging a smartphone requires a stable power supply, and although the 3G networks within the city were fine, they weren't good in the canyons.”
This is where Andrews’ expertise came in. His knowledge of Nepal and experience building surveillance systems with “just the bare bones” (as he put it) helped the team reverse engineer the smartphone app Nelson used in Bangladesh and use elements of it to create a paper-based surveillance system that’s better suited to the post-earthquake situation in rural Nepal.
"This was a risky endeavor," Andrews said. "We didn’t have funding so we drew upon our own existing resources. Funding takes a while, the earthquake was in April and the monsoon hits in June. If we had waited, the monsoon season would have passed. We realized we could scale this up really quickly with minimal resources and it was worth the risk."
Now, the team's paper-based system has been working for several months and Nepal's government is interested in replicating the model at a larger level.
“I learned two important lessons during my trip to Nepal,” Nelson told me. “I learned the power of winnowing a complicated process, like our smartphone app, down. I also learned how we can broaden what we did in Bangladesh for a wider community.”
He continued: "Hopefully we are emerging from the idea that mobile technology is a panacea. We need to be open to considering high — or low — tech strategies depending on what the on-the-ground situation is. We happened to have two very different design challenges in Bangladesh and Nepal: Mobile was best for Bangladesh and paper was best for Nepal. You have to build what the end-user desires, is feasible and is viable. I think the mhealth field is waking up to this reality."
Previously: A tale of two earthquakes: Stanford doctor discusses responses to the Nepal and Haiti disasters, Reporting and treating cholera: Soon, there could be an app for that, Day 1: Arriving in Nepal to aid earthquake victims and Using social media to fight cholera
Photo courtesy of U.u.H. Schmel and R.K. Mahato