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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 10:40 am | Fair 58º


Kate Voss: What We Can Learn from Ebola — Better Technology for a Better Tomorrow

The site where the Statue of Liberty now stands was once a quarantine hospital. In the late 1700s, the colonial governor of New York had every right to detain, at will and at length, any vessel infected with a contagious disease. Violators were fined £500, roughly $90,000 in modern U.S. dollars. The hospital was moved in 1801 to Staten Island, where it was so hated that rioters burned it down in 1857.

Thankfully, disease control technology has improved quite a bit since. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT established what they hoped to be the key to Pandora’s box.

Drawing from their lexicon of government gobbledygook, they called it the Public Health Electronic Records Vendors Collaboration Initiative. It is a mammoth database of medical electronic health records (EHR). EHR systems leverage the power of geomedicine — tracking a person’s areas of residence, work and travel — to zero in on pandemic epicenters and the at-risk population.

The CDC thinks its system can profile potential Ebola patients using a new algorithm. Unfortunately, some 1,000-plus vendors must upgrade their software and train their staff. When the next virus knocks, the process must be repeated.

“Staff need to have the time to learn and do the coding. In small settings — especially rural hospitals — they are very unlikely to have that extra personnel,” admitted Megan Sawchuck, lead health scientist at the CDC.

Real-time cloud technology could strip away the cobwebs inherent in native software. Microsoft generously offered free use of its Azure storage and cloud computing power to the Ebola research community. Others look to iPhone-like APIs to refine labyrinthine EHR databases. Scads of smartphone apps purport to track or diagnose Ebola, such as the Ideomed Abriiz health monitor. One ingenious Australian doctor suggested monitoring SMS keywords to follow the front lines of the viral outbreak.

But Ebola, and other fast-acting viruses, do not wait for annual IT updates. The demand for competent, law-savvy health IT specialists has skyrocketed recently. A recent survey conducted by HealthItJobs.com found that employers were offering the most competitive salaries to applicants who were tech savvy, or possessed some formal training in telemedicine. The potential long-term utility of programs like this could yield untold advantages in crisis/outbreak situations in the future.

But, as the data show: Specialists are needed urgently. The West African outbreak was reported in March. Within seven months, almost 5,000 had died. Quick diagnoses are needed, and so funded by a $2.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Corgenix Medical Corp. set to work on a prototype kit that works like a pregnancy test and may be able to identify the virus in a blood sample in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, Corgenix CEO Douglas Simpson announced in August, “We likely [will not] have a final one in the near future.”

Enter Scripps Research Institute, based in San Diego, which raised $100,000 in two weeks in a crowdfunding campaign to research its experimental medicine. Scripps leads an international consortium to create and refine ZMapp, a serum of three antibodies designed to bind Ebola proteins. ZMapp was administered to two infected U.S. aid workers at Emory University Hospital. They recovered, but a victim in Spain given the drug died. Ebola vaccines from GlaxoSmithKline, Swissmedic, Johnson & Johnson and NewLink Genetics are currently in testing. Two are in human trials with preliminary results expected by December.

Prevention is the best cure. In a feat worthy of Arthur Clarke, 250 U.S. hospitals have purchased an army of Xenex Disinfection robots, $115,000 each. Using sharp pulses of ultraviolet light, the robots kill topical bacteria and Ebola viruses, which can survive for six days on solid surfaces. In West Africa, medical technicians use infrared thermometers to reduce contact with at-risk patients.

Yet even as pharmaceutical companies rush to develop vaccines, medical pioneers hope that one day, perhaps tomorrow, global EHR databases and over-the-counter diagnostic kits could halt Ebola, could halt West Nile, could perhaps return any pandemic to Pandora’s box.

— Kate Voss is an environmental and technology blogger from Chicago. She focuses her time writing about how to create a more sustainable society and the new technologies which allow this. The opinions expressed are her own.

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