Scientists are trying to use mobile phones to track the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in developing countries around the world.
Data from phones could reveal where TB patients are travelling, exposing ‘hot spots’ where others are most likely to catch the disease.
The experiment could produce a more effective way to treat the lung infection, which killed at least 1.3 million people around the world last year.
While the infection can usually be treated with antibiotics, it can be hard to stop it spreading in developing countries, researchers say.
Tuberculosis is a contagious bacterial infection which most commonly affects the lungs and, if left untreated, can destroy the organs from the inside out, eventually killing people by starving the body of oxygen
Researchers at the University of Georgia in the US are working with scientists at Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda.
One of the biggest barriers to stopping the spread of tuberculosis, the researchers said, is stopping people from infecting others before they realise they have it.
Project leader Professor Christopher Whalen said: ‘By the time a case is diagnosed and treated, the next generation of cases has already been newly infected.’
Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection which most commonly infects the lungs, can be spread through coughing and sneezing – with coughing one of the main symptoms.
If left untreated, the disease can kill people by destroying their lungs from the inside and starving the body of oxygen.
In the UK, TB hit its lowest levels since 1990 last year – with just 5,102 diagnoses – but the disease still infects around 10 million people a year, most commonly in Africa and South East Asia.
Professor Whalen said tracking the phones of patients in developing countries could allow medics to target places where those with the infection are known to go.
WHAT IS TUBERCULOSIS?
Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection spread between people by coughing and sneezing.
The infection usually affects the lungs but the bacteria can cause problems in any part of the body.
In healthy people the bacteria are often killed by the immune system or at least prevented from spreading.
But if it causes an infection symptoms can include fever, coughing, night sweats, weight loss, tiredness and fatigue, a loss of appetite and swellings in the neck.
Around 10 million people are thought to suffer from the infection every year around the world – and up to one in 10 of them die.
TB is particularly dangerous for people with weakened immune systems.
With treatment, TB can almost always be cured with antibiotics and people tend to stop being contagious after about three weeks of therapy.
Most modern mobile phones can have their locations tracked – smartphones have internet geolocation which means simple apps can allow people to track their friends and use maps.
And even older phones without the internet can be tracked through a log of which masts they connect to to get signal.
During a study between 2012 and 2017, Professor Whalen and colleagues found tuberculosis does not always spread among friends and family, suggesting it needs to be tracked elsewhere.
His team tried following 15 TB patients using their phone records and found they all went to the same places – locations he calls ‘hot spots’.
Working out where the hot spots are could help medics find other infected people and slow the spread of the infection by diagnosing them earlier.
Professor Whalen added: ‘There are hot spots, or places where TB patients spend a lot of time.
‘With this information, you can target areas with the usual community control strategies, such as TB screening, active case finding, and education.
‘If you collect this cellphone information going forward, you’ll be able to see if your control strategies worked.’
The universities of Georgia and Kampala will study the success of the phone-tracking with the help of a £2 million ($2.6m) grant from the US Government.
Health experts have warned millions of TB sufferers, particularly in poor countries, aren’t properly diagnosed and treated.
And the World Health Organization said an increasing number of the 10 million people infected each year suffer from drug-resistant strains of TB which are difficult and costly to treat.