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World's largest disease study using smartphones
March 29, 2016, 1:11 pm

Results from the largest infectious disease study ever undertaken have revealed that 100 million people around the world are at risk of blindness from the infectious disease trachoma. The study, which involved 2.6 million participants in 29 different countries, over a 3-year period, was made possible by the use of smartphone technology.

Smartphones from surveyors operating around the world were used to help collect, log and transmit data about the disease in a mapping exercise titled, 'The Global Trachoma Mapping Project'. The project, funded by the UK government in partnership with the US and the World Health Organization (WHO), will help create a platform that will underpin the drive to eliminate blinding trachoma. The project will also contribute to efforts to eliminate other neglected tropical diseases.

Trachoma is the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world and responsible for three percent of global blindness. It impairs the vision of around 2.2 million people, of whom 1.2 million are irreversibly blind and is a health problem in around 51 countries, including Asia and the Middle East, with Africa carrying the bulk of the burden. The disease is mostly prevalent in poor, crowded communities with limited access to clean water and sanitation. Ethiopia has the world's highest trachoma prevalence, with an estimated 50 million people living in endemic areas.

Over the course of the three-year study, more than 550 teams of trained surveyors, including ophthalmic nurses and other government eye health care workers, visited millions of people in sample households in the most remote locations of 29 countries, including Chad, Eritrea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Colombia and Yemen.

The teams conducted eye examinations and used mobile phones and tablets to record their findings, which were then sent to a data center in the US. There, the information was cleaned and analyzed before being sent to local governments for review, approval and use.

The use of smartphones and tablets was a crucial element in the ability to deliver the project on such a massive scale. The technology enabled organizers to coordinate teams from around the world and ensure that data could be easily collected in even the most remote parts of the world and then subsequently transmitted for analysis. On average, one person was examined every 40 seconds during the course of the study.

Having a complete map of the disease's prevalence means that ministries of health in endemic countries have the evidence needed to focus preventative and treatment strategies, including targeted interventions, to tackle the neglected tropical disease. The hope is that the survey will support efforts to eliminate the blinding disease trachoma by 2020. 

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