A study recently carried out by the University of Southampton in the UK in tandem with Namibia’s National Vector-borne Diseases Control Programme (NVDCP) has demonstrated how mobile phone data can be a powerful aid in combatting malaria.

Mobile Phone Data Helping to Combat Malaria

Worldwide there are 207 million people suffering from malaria, with 627,000 deaths from the disease in 2012. The disease is a real curse in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 80% of cases occur. In order to eliminate the disease, it is vital to target specific areas and deploy appropriate measures. However, figures on human movement patterns in regions of endemic malaria are hard to come by and often restricted to local travel surveys and census-based migration data. Such data has proved to be completely inadequate. Now researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK and at the NVDCP in Namibia have taken a new angle. They have taken advantage of the rapid proliferation of mobile phones in Africa to gather data on major patterns of movement around the country from mobile phone records in order to identify potential ‘hotspots’ in the spread of malaria.

Understanding patterns of movement

The study carried out in Namibia used anonymised Call Data Records provided by the telecoms service provider Mobile Telecommunications Limited to monitor population movements over a year. The study tracked nine billion mobile communications during 2010-2011. These communications came from 1.19 million unique subscribers, representing around 52% of the population of Namibia. The data has enabled the researchers to reconstruct the aggregated movements of mobile users between urban areas and between urban and rural areas. “Understanding the movement of people is crucial in eliminating malaria,” explained Dr Andy Tatem, a Geography academic at the University of Southampton, “as attempts to clear the disease from an area can be ruined by highly mobile populations quickly reintroducing the parasite which causes malaria.” Using the phone records in conjunction with data based on rapid diagnostic testing of malaria, plus information on the climate, environment and topography of the country, the researchers have been able to identify geographical ‘hotspots’ of the disease.

Targeting ‘at risk’ areas

This data, combined with research that is already underway, is helping the national medical service to design targeted plans for the elimination of malaria. The results of the study have already proved their worth. They have helped the NVDCP in Namibia to target anti-malaria interventions at those communities which are most at risk. Specifically they helped plan targeted distribution of insecticide-treated bed-nets in the Omusati, Kavango and Zambezi regions in 2013 and will continue to guide the NVDCP’s preparations for a large-scale bed-net distribution and deployment of community health workers in 2014.  While Dr Tatem is careful not to exaggerate the benefits of the phone call-tracking exercise since “the importation of malaria from outside a country will always be a crucial focus of disease control programmes,” he nevertheless points out that "movement of the disease within countries is also of huge significance."