Preventing the Next Pandemic with Cell Phones

Human biologist Nathan Wolf with a Cameroonian hunter.

Much is known about patient zero, allegedly the first carrier of HIV and catalyst for one of the greatest pandemics the world has ever known.  But the origins of the virus can be traced much further back than that.  The roots of the virus that has plagued humanity for the last three decades snake from the United States, through Haiti, and back to Africa, where all life began.

A recent Radiolab show titled “Patient Zero” traces the virus from the French-Canadian steward who recklessly spread the virus through the gay community in the early 80’s through an evolutionary timeline that begins in a 100 square-mile patch of jungle between three rivers in the southeastern part of Cameroon.  There, Colobus monkeys carrying variants of SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) found their way into the stomachs of much larger chimpanzees.  At some point, multiple strains of these SIVs crossed and mutated and became the virus that was the precursor to HIV.

According to the “cut hunter” theory, sometime around the turn of the 20th century, a Bantu man living in this region of Cameroon killed a chimpanzee for food.  While gutting and cleaning the chimp, the hunter nicks himself with his blade and comes into contact with the infected chimp’s blood, transferring the SIV virus into the man.  SIV becomes HIV and, just like that, the human immunodeficiency virus is born.

Now that the virus exists, it begins its long journey into bloodstreams of 60 million people.  It is impossible to know exactly how it happened – perhaps the hunter infected a prostitute, who in turn infected a fisherman.  Because this region is located along two major rivers that feed down into what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the fisherman may have traveled downstream to Brazzaville, Kinshasa, or one of the many other urban centers that were sprouting up across the Belgian Congo and the rest of colonial Africa.  And from here, HIV exploded.

The story is fascinating and I recommend listening to the Radiolab episode in its entirety.  But one of the things I found most interesting is the way scientists and public health researchers are now using this information to prevent this from ever happening again.  As the Radiolab hosts point out, it took 75 years – 1908 to 1981 – before HIV hit the mainstream in a big way.  What if we had been looking for it all that time?

That is precisely what we are doing now.  The remote communities where HIV entered this world are often only accessible by plane.  With few roads, they are isolated from the world.  Yet, as the most recent Economist points out in its lead article, “Africa Rising,” there are 600 million mobile phone users in Africa – more than half the population.  As I have written about extensively in this blog, technology has adapted to suit the specific conditions of Africa.  Mobile banking, for example, allows people to access cash in places with no banks.  This same dynamic makes it possible to pinpoint the start of a potential epidemic before it has a chance to leave the community where it began.

HIV Researcher Nathan Wolf actually traced the path of the virus from Cameroon down the river to the cities of the Congo.  He understands firsthand the circuitous path a virus can take before it reaches the tipping point.  To identify future outbreaks, he and his colleagues have set up monitoring stations to track “viral chatter” across Central Africa.   He identifies where an immunodeficiency virus makes the jump from chimpanzee to human hunters.  And the way he finds them is fascinating.

In the DRC, for example, communities with no roads still have cell phone towers.  So Nathan and his team actually track cell phone patterns in rural communities.  When a flurry of calls is made to a local medical center or clinic in a short period of time, it raises a red flag.  The researchers swoop in to identify the cause and take samples to study the new virus.  This is how we stop a virus before it spreads throughout the world.

A few months ago, Kentaro Toyama, a pre-eminent thinker in the ICT4D (information, communications, and technology for development) gave a talk at the iHub, the shared workspace I frequented while in Nairobi.  He spoke about how it is impossible to get rich running a socially-focused technology business – a “social enterprise.”  After the talk, I asked him what he thought about Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-British founder of Celtel, the first telecom in Africa and the man who literally created the mobile telecom market in Africa out of nothing.  Surely, this is a man who has changed the world in a positive way and become massively rich in the process.  Toyama disagreed with me, saying the telecoms are explicitly profit-oriented.  But I still disagree, and stories like this reinforce my view.

A decade ago, we could have never tracked the spread of disease the way we can today with the aid of cell phones.  What Wolf and his team are doing is nothing short of amazing, and it has been enabled by creating a communication network that extends to even the most remote communities around the world.

With biological terrors like multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and malaria still ravaging parts of the world, humans still have their hands full with disease.  But, thanks to cell phones in Africa, we might never see another HIV again.

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