Mobile Technology is Helping to End a Debilitating Infection that Affects the World’s Poor
By Dave Ross, ScD, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Task Force for Global Health
Neglected tropical diseases affect 1.7 billion people worldwide, primarily the world’s poor. Left untreated, these infections can lead to blindness and other debilitating and disfiguring conditions such as elephantiasis.
Fortunately, drug manufacturers have partnered with philanthropic organizations to deliver mass treatment of preventive medicines to people in developing countries, where these diseases are endemic. But – as many programs in endemic countries are discovering – the last mile of disease elimination is often the hardest.
A major challenge is knowing when to stop mass treatment. If stopped too early, a disease will continue to spread. If stopped too late, programs will have wasted resources that could have been devoted to other health initiatives. The decision about when to stop treatment rests on the results of a diagnostic test, used to determine if the disease prevalence is below a level at which transmission is believed to no longer be sustainable.
In a collaboration with The Task Force for Global Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists at the Colorado-based startup Mobile Assay aim to optimize this decision-making process with the aid of mobile technology. This collaboration has led to the development of a mobile reader that automates the analysis of diagnostic tests for lymphatic filariasis, a mosquito-borne infection that causes elephantiasis. The tool is designed to provide a more objective and standardized interpretation of the test results.
The filariasis mobile reader – or mReader – works with a common Android tablet, a 3D-printed hood that attaches to the tablet, and a test holder. The fully developed test strip is placed in the holder and slid into the hood so that the results window of the test is positioned directly above the tablet’s camera. The mReader application then utilizes the camera on the tablet to take multiple images of the defined area of the test strip and performs a quantitative analysis in real-time, which is ultimately translated into a “positive” or “negative” result.
The filariasis mReader has been successfully piloted in Haiti, where the national program is conducting pre-Transmission Assessment Surveys to determine the readiness to conduct a larger-scale survey that would inform the decision to stop treatment.
Scientists and disease program experts will continue to refine the technology. Their hope is that this mobile technology can be leveraged in formal assessments of lymphatic filariasis and other diseases, giving programs a boost as they approach the finish line of elimination.