Infectious disease monitoring and management is not only a challenge abroad but also locally in the continental United States. At Texas A&M, Dr. Jennifer Horney PhD, MPH, CPH from the School of Public Health and Dr. Daniel Goldberg, PhD from the College of Geosciences have lead an effort to attack Zika, an Aedes mosquito-borne virus, at its source, standing water, through iOS and Android apps. The platform crowdsources data from citizen scientists about the locations of standing water that health departments can use to identify hotspots where samples can be collected to test for the presence of Zika. We had a chance to sit down with Dr. Horney to learn more about the group’s mobile platform.
Mike Batista, Medgadget: Tell us a little about your background and interest in Zika.
Dr. Horney: I am an epidemiologist whose research focuses on outbreak investigations and natural disasters. I worked a lot on the novel influenzas that were happening in 2006 (avian flu) and 2009 (H1N1). Since coming to Texas A&M, I’ve been able to work with researchers across the university on issues related to infrastructure and health, climate and health. Zika is a great example of how we might be facilitating the spread of new diseases through issues like infrastructure and climate.
Medgadget: Within the past couple of years efforts have been underway to fight Zika. What led you to the idea of creating a mobile app to address the problem?
Dr. Horney: We heard from local health department partners that they needed volunteers to help with surveillance for mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are collected from standing water and then tested for Zika virus. By crowd-sourcing the data collection, we can collect a lot of data about where standing water might be concentrated to improve the efficiency of these local health departments.
Medgadget: How does the app work and who would use the mobile app?
Dr. Horney: Anyone can download the app and enter data about the number of potential breeding containers in their own yard, property, or in public areas. All data is uploaded and mapped to generate “hot spots” where there are a lot of potential breeding containers.
Medgadget: Who benefits from the mobile app?
Dr. Horney: The idea is that by using citizen scientists to collect data on risk factors for Zika and mapping places where the mosquitos that transmit the virus can breed, we can cover a lot more areas than if we have to rely on limited public health staff to conduct surveillance for mosquito breeding. By having residents anywhere around the world contribute data, we can identify hot spots and put resources there to mitigate mosquito breeding.
Medgadget: The mobile app is free for download in the iOS and Android app stores. Are there plans for monetizing this technology as a platform?
Dr. Horney: There are no plans to monetize the technology. We are hoping to secure grant support to enhance the app. For example, we could add more questions to collect data about the prevalence of other potential risk factors for Zika and related diseases, like travel, housing quality (i.e. window screens), and contact with stray dogs.
Medgadget: What more can or needs to be done today to make strides against the Zika virus?
Dr. Horney: We saw our first reported case of local transmission of Zika virus in Texas just this week in Cameron County. Zika is here to stay. This is also true for other diseases that we’ve previously only seen in more tropical locations like leishmaniasis and dengue. We will need major investments in public health infrastructure and in health education to keep people safe. In the long run, we have to consider how changes in the environment and the climate facilitate the spread of these types of diseases.
Medgadget: Do you see mobile health technology playing a role in the management of other infectious diseases? Are there any examples where it has already been or could be applied?
Dr. Horney: Google Flu Trends and other platforms have been used to track clusters of disease before they could be identified with traditional public heath surveillance. The idea of outsourcing data collection to citizen scientists is one that is not going away. However, more work needs to be done to ensure data quality and to better understand how we can analyze these types of crowd-sourced data to develop public health interventions.