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Health + Tech | Tracking outbreaks the easy way

Published:Thursday | May 4, 2017 | 12:00 AMDoug Halsall
Minister of Health Dr Christopher Tufton (right) chats with Dr Alison Nicholson (centre), Head of Microbiology Department and Chief Medical Officer, Dr Winston De La Haye, during a tour of the Virology Lab at the University Hospital of the West Indies. The lab is equipped to test for the Zika virus, dengue, and chikungunya virus.

Not many Jamaicans will soon forget the impact of the chik-V outbreak a few years ago.

Although the Government began speaking about the virus at least a year before it hit, most Jamaicans were not paying attention.

Suffice it to say, the fact that the Government could not provide proper data in the midst of the outbreak and seemed unprepared for the onslaught that was to come, did not help its cause.

Could technology have assisted? Certainly, as it could have significantly cut down preparation time, increased awareness and would have allowed the Government to act much quicker than it was able to.




The health technology available in Jamaica now can provide a database of illnesses which people are experiencing right now. It can also provide a list of the most prescribed medication in use at any given time.

The chik-V outbreak must have begun with complaints of the symptoms that characterise the disease. This means that medical doctors would have been prescribing medication to treat these symptoms including management of the pain. There would, therefore, essentially be a spike in the prescription and purchase of certain medication.

If the Ministry of Health was keyed into this database, it would have known that this was the beginning of the outbreak even before confirming the first case via lab testing.

In addition, the ministry would have been able, at that point, to start mapping the most frequently noted symptoms so that public pharmacies could be properly stocked with the requisite medication. It would also quickly recognise the geographical area or parish from which most complaints were coming.

This would have helped with at least two things: the problem of medication running out and response and containment of the virus in a particular area. The Ministry of Health could have also used this data to do mapping to better understand how the virus would most likely spread geographically - again aiding preparation especially with respect to the most vulnerable areas and population.

With respect to the matter of the diseases themselves, the present database could allow the Ministry of Health to acquire early information on the disease profile at any given time and illnesses which are circulating.

Again, notification of things like chik-V, Zika, Influenza, hand, foot and mouth disease, gastro-enteritis, and others would have been much quicker than if a doctor or another health worker had to submit a paper form to the ministry.

Let's face it, health workers, who already have long days, are focusing on treating patients in front of them. Filling out a form to submit would just have to wait, hence the possible delayed notification.




The electronic system that exists can provide real-time information to allow for daily, weekly, monthly, and even year-on-year analysis.

All in all, the health ministry would be armed with epidemiological and other information early in the game that would allow it to improve its surveillance capacity, properly plan, and proactively manage the health of the nation.

I used chik-V as a reference point, but the truth is that this could apply to any disease condition in the country and any medication use that we wish to track from both public and private health facilities and pharmacies.

We could, for example, know the number of cases of any non-communicable diseases treated in the island at a particular time. We would, therefore, be in a position to plan very useful and targeted interventions and put resources where they are most needed to improve the health of our citizens.

Health and development are intertwined and so if we truly wish to achieve continuous growth, solid improvements in the economy and the welfare of our people, then infusing technology in the health sector to help with decision making must be a major area of focus.

The Pan American Health Organisation has indicated that there will be more new diseases introduced in the Caribbean region and more outbreaks to come within the next few years. We have the tools readily available right now to better prepare us. Why not use them?

- Doug Halsall is the chairman and CEO, Advanced Integrated Systems. Feedback: editorial@gleanerjm.com or Doug.halsall@gmail.com