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Survey: Genetic and mobile phone data new weapon against drug-resistant malaria

  • Published at 12:11 am May 8th, 2019
Photo: Bigstock

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Telenor Group, Mahidol-Oxford Research Unit and the National Malaria Elimination Programme in Bangladesh jointly conducted the study

A recent study found that combining malaria genetic data with human mobility data from mobile networks can help map and predict the spread of drug-resistant malaria.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Telenor Group, Mahidol-Oxford Research Unit and the National Malaria Elimination Programme in Bangladesh jointly conducted the study, said a press release.

Combining epidemiological data, travel surveys, parasite genetic data, and anonymized mobile phone data, the study was able to measure the geographic spread of different types of malaria parasites in southeast Bangladesh—including drug-resistant mutations.

Data pointed to transmission from outside to high-incidence areas, and showed substantial transfer of parasites throughout the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeast Bangladesh.

Hsiao-Han Chang, research associate at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, explained to eLife Sciences, publisher of the study: "Our combined method gave us detailed insight into the direction and intensity of parasite flow between locations."

Kenth Engø-Monsen, senior research scientist at Telenor Research, said the study proved that big data could be a potent weapon in the fight against malaria.

“When used in tandem with disease information from local authorities, anonymized mobile network data shows us very accurately whether drug-resistant mutations of malaria parasites spread locally or if they came from outside the local area,” Engø-Monsen explained.

Telenor Research Fellow Geoffrey Canright said knowing this made it easier for health authorities to disseminate public disease information and enact prevention efforts like distributing more mosquito nets and warnings in both current and potential malaria hotspots.

"It is a case in point of how data in aggregated form can be deployed for the good of society.”

Bangladesh was chosen for this study largely due to its central location between Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

The ability to track and quantify the spread of malaria, particularly the drug-resistant strain, has become a priority for national health programs.

The study was funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institute of Health.

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