Calls to a hotline can predict, and potentially stop, dengue outbreaks

Mother and son laying on bed behind mosquito net (© AP Images)
A Pakistani mother holds her son suffering from dengue fever at a hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in 2015. (© AP Images)

Predicting an outbreak of dengue fever could be just a phone call away. A telephone helpline is helping public health officials in Pakistan predict the incidence of the mosquito-borne disease.

Researchers in the United States and Pakistan developed a telephone hotline to forecast the scope of an outbreak of dengue, a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes. The research team’s computer algorithm then feeds information from callers into a prediction model, two to three weeks before an actual outbreak.

By knowing how many people could become infected, public health officials can take preventive measures to limit the impact of dengue on a community, eliminating breeding grounds and treating affected areas with insecticide.

Lakshmi Subramanian, a professor at New York University, said the computer model is extremely accurate, down to specific neighborhoods and blocks.

Man spraying cloud near woman with children looking on (© AP Images)
A health worker fumigates the area to prevent dengue fever in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011. (© AP Images)

A health worker fumigates the area to prevent dengue fever in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2011. (© AP Images)

That level of specificity can make it a very powerful tool against outbreaks such as occurred in 2011 in the Pakistani province of Punjab, which was blindsided when dengue infected more than 21,000 people and took 350 lives. Unprepared for the onslaught, area hospitals were swamped.

An estimated 400,000 people are infected with dengue fever each year, and an estimated 2.5 billion people are at risk of contracting dengue. The disease causes sudden high fever, severe headaches and agonizing joint and muscle pain. Parasite-infected mosquitoes spread the illness, for which there is no cure or vaccine.

Hotline response

So far, 300,000 people have called the hotline with questions about the symptoms of dengue, and cases have dropped dramatically in Lahore, researchers said.

The cost-effective system does not require much effort to collect and analyze data, researchers said, and can apply to malaria, influenza and even polio, a disease that has been virtually eradicated worldwide but for a few remaining cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“So, to some extent, it’s very generic and can be deployed in any other parts of the country and any other countries” said Nabeel Abdur Rehman, the study’s leading author.