Mobile phones could help track malaria and show how human travel contributes to the disease's spread, according to a study published in the journal Science, CNN reports.
For the study, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and seven other institutions collected data from nearly 15 million mobile phones in Kenya to study population movement over one year.
Between June 2008 and June 2009, the scientists mapped every call or text made in 692 Kenyan settlements. The mapping effort helped them determine the destination and duration of each trip made from a mobile phone user's primary residence.
Researchers then compared the movement data with information on malaria infection rates from the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Malaria Atlas Project.
Caroline Buckee -- senior author of the study and assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard -- said the study is the first to combine large volumes of cellphone information with infectious disease data "to measure human mobility and understand how a disease is spreading" (Smith-Spark, CNN, 10/13).
The study found that a significant portion of malaria infections in Kenya originate from the Lake Victoria region and spread east toward Nairobi.
According to the researchers, the results point to areas where malaria control efforts could be the most effective (Nordvist, Medical News Today, 10/14).
To control malaria in the areas where infections originate, the researchers recommend localized interventions like insecticide spraying and removal of mosquito habitats.
To curb infections by targeting human travel, the researchers recommend that health officials focus on:
- Communicating risks to travelers;
- Restricting travel patterns; and
- Conducting routine surveillance in high-risk areas.
The study states, "As mobile phone data sets become increasingly available and representative of entire populations, we anticipate that studies like the one we present here will become common for understanding a range of different infectious diseases" (CNN, 10/13).
According to Buckee, the techniques used in the study eventually could be used to generate mobile phone alerts, so that people traveling to or from high-risk areas would receive a text message reminding them to take precautions (Doucleff, "Shots," NPR, 10/11).