Med Center Research Associate receives NSF grant to help fight Ebola

What if everyone in Nigeria had a smartphone with an app where they could input abnormal health symptoms? What if health care workers could monitor all the information in real time, and direct resources to people and places before an Ebola outbreak got out of control?


Solomon Abiola, MS, is hoping to answer these questions, at least on a very small scale, in the next few months.

A research associate in the Medical Center, Abiola recently received a $130,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a smartphone app that can track the symptoms of a population in real time. He leaves for Nigeria to begin implementing his idea in the next month.

The app works like this: A cellphone user living in a region with a dangerous epidemic downloads the program. Every morning, the app sends the person a series of questions about how they are feeling and prompts them to seek help if certain criteria are met.

“So a big component for Ebola was your temperature,” said Abiola. “The app could ask ‘Do you have a fever?’ and if you answered that your fever was 103, it would tell you to come in and get screened. That way you can get in front of a health care worker instead of waiting, which might cause you to spread your disease to your family or anyone else you encounter.”

The grant covers a field study with up to 200 participants. Health-related studies that track cellphone data in an attempt to map a population have been done before, said Abiola, but previous studies have been done retroactively, which can create legal issues and issues of informed consent.

“A lot of studies that use cellphones are doing it passively. They’ll look at the cellphone tower information or, after the fact, they’ll download a bunch of data from a carrier, which can create other obstacles because none of those users have given consent to use their data,” said Abiola, who collaborated with Henry Kautz, Ph.D., Robin and Tim Wentworth Director of the Institute of Data Science, and Ray Dorsey, M.D., director of the Center for Human Experimental Therapeutics, on the grant.

“But through this, by downloading the app, you’ll be able to give informed consent, and the app will give health care providers real-time information.”

Though the Ebola crisis is one of the more pressing global health crisis he said that the app could potentially be used to track any future outbreak, or aid in current efforts to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS. In developing countries, where health care professionals are scarce, the app could be used to direct the limited health resources into regions that need it most. But in more developed countries, it could also be used as a form of telemedicine, allowing doctors to check in on patients who live in rural areas; or aid in tracking infectious diseases within the hospital system, such as MRSA and C. diff.

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