Stopping the Superbugs – How Technology Can Help Us Combat Disease

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Ebola should not be perceived as the terrifying, inescapable disease that mass media has led many to believe it is. It cannot be transmitted through air, water, food or mosquitoes and it only has one rule: don’t touch.

Superbugs

Yet more than 5,000 West Africans have died from the disease. Not one to be next in line, Guangzhou, China, requires all travelers from African countries to reside at the state-owned Hotel Canton for 21 days while submitting to twice-daily health checks and carrying a GPS. Even Sierra Leone, a country devastated by the outbreak, has locked down the highly affected Bombali district. Yet bioethicist Arthur Caplan argues that enforcing quarantines is next to impossible and undermines public trust.

So why did Ebola spread so quickly in Africa?

In West Africa, hospitals are far from modern. In one Bombali facility, the critically ill are cared for by nurses trained by PowerPoint only. Many hospitals, such as the charity-owned ELWA hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, lack sufficient personal protection equipment. Foreign countries have offered aid, doctors and advanced equipment, such as infrared sensors to conduct physical examinations, but promises are slow in coming to West Africa. Of the assistance that has arrived, many are the sort that help communication but don’t cure the disease, such as the 3,000 Galaxy S3 Neo smartphones Samsung donated via the UN to struggling African nations.

More advanced hospitals and airports in 1st world countries look to robots to clean contaminated areas. Consider GiGi, a waist-high robot costing $104,000, available for rent. Once wheeled into the middle of a room and after the humans clear out, Gigi bombards a room with ultraviolet light 25,000 times stronger than sunlight, effectively killing all germs in the area. Dr. Ray Casciari, a pulmonary disease specialist at St. Joseph Hospital, told CNN, “We can clean and disinfect a room (by hand) to an 85 percent level, but when we use the ultraviolet light we can clean that room to 99.9 percent.”

But many argue that data, not doctors, are the cure to viral outbreaks. Transparency and real-time data and diagnoses are key. The solution: electronic health records (EHRs). Congress prodded hospitals to trash their manila folders and make the switch to digitized records thanks to the 2009 Hitech Act. Now, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 60 percent of hospitals have a basic EHR system. In future handlings of global health crises, modernized technology will be absolutely critical. As shown in a survey recently conducted by HealthItJobs.com, there has been a dramatic rise in the demand for health information technology specialists. Disaster relief organizations are striving to hire professionals well versed in the latest HIT platforms.

Ideally, EHR databases would prevent pathogenic pandemics. But Mike Berger, vice president of enterprise analytics at Geisinger Health Systems, argues that were an outbreak to occur, it could be the boost EHR systems so desperately need. “Emergencies like this [Ebola] could actually create quick pops of innovation, where we create better interoperability and better integration, because we see it as an emergency problem that needs to be fixed.”

This phenomenon occurred on a small scale in South Dakota. A viral illness had its epicenter at the local basketball game. The state Department of Health (DOH) used Maven, an electronic disease surveillance system offered by Consilience Software, to track the front lines and identify at-risk areas. Within a day, Consilience disease specialists concluded the culprit was a food-based toxin served at the game, an assumption proven the following week at the DOH laboratory.

Many viruses, like Ebola, unfortunately possess the ability to learn. Ebola viruses mutate constantly, rendering traditional strain-specific technology helpless. Unless West Africa is offered access to higher level nanotechnology and modernized hospitals, Ebola could continue to spread throughout the area. While surrounding countries are relatively safe from the disease, we can still hope the outbreak provides the necessary push to update outdated medical centers in all countries, not just those affected.


Beth Kelly is a health and technology blogger from Chicago, IL. She graduated from DePaul University, and frequently covers new advances in home and medical technology and how they're changing people's lives.

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