Researchers use cell phone data to stop malaria spread

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and seven other institutions have used cell phone data from 15 million people in Kenya to reveal regional incidence of malaria.

The findings detailed, on a massive scale, how human travel patterns contribute to the spread of the disease. The research showed that malaria mostly comes from Kenya's Lake Victoria region and spreads east toward Nairobi, the nation's capital.

"This is the first time that such a massive amount of cell phone data-from millions of individuals over the course of a year-has been used, together with detailed infectious disease data, to measure human mobility and understand how a disease is spreading," Caroline Buckee, the senior author of the study, said.

The researchers mapped every text or call made by each of Kenya's 14,816,521 mobile phone subscribers to one of 11,920 cell towers in 692 settlements between June 2008 and June 2009. The team then used a 2009 malaria prevalence map provided by the Malaria Atlas Project and the Kenya Medical Research Institute to estimate the prevalence of the disease in each studied location. From that information, the researchers inferred the probability of each resident being infected and how probable it was that visitors to certain areas would be infected.

Buckee said research that couples data from mobile phones with malaria incidence information will help scientists to understand how the disease spreads. One application of the information is that officials could use the data to send text message warnings to the phone of people traveling to areas thought of as high-risk.

Malaria kills approximately one million people annually, 90 percent of whom are children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa.

Support for the program was provided by the NIH Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study Program, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program.