Deploying Technology in the Fight Against Ebola

You do not want to catch Ebola. The Ebola virus kills approximately 70% of those who contract it, but not before causing severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding. There is no proven cure. But the use of technology may just help us to win the fight against the deadly virus.

The 2014 Ebola virus outbreak is the largest in history. Although the current outbreak is limited mainly to West Africa, some cases have leaked out to other countries.

When the Ebola virus was first diagnosed in the U.S. - in Dallas, Texas on September 30 - government authorities and hospitals were taken off-guard. The deadly disease, previously limited to West Africa, was widely believed to be extremely hard to spread. The second confirmed case, in New York City, nudged a previously complacent public into a state of near-panic fanned by the media.

As far as medical experts know, Ebola can only be transmitted by bodily fluids from an infected person who is displaying symptoms, or by handling a victim's corpse. Yet, despite stringent controls, caregivers handling Ebola cases are being exposed to the virus.

Infectious disease control comes down to science combined with human diligence. But even the strictest of guidelines cannot ensure that the disease will not spread. The lack of federal quarantine laws in the U.S. can mean a victim slips through the international travel safety-net. One slip in the mandated routine of healthcare workers donning and doffing personal protective equipment (PPE) after dealing with an Ebola patient can mean contamination and infection.

A nurse treating Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas was the first person to be infected with Ebola inside the United States (Duncan had contracted the disease in Liberia before flying to the U.S.). The nurse had reportedly made a grievous error when removing her rubber gloves - she got some fluids on her hands then touched her face. More than 400 caretakers worldwide have contracted Ebola during the recent outbreak.

The complicated and meticulous protocol for donning and doffing PPE garments - including double rubber gloves, hazmat suits and respirators - was designed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). It mandates a rigorous and repeated training system, and a dedicated "Ebola monitor." The rules are long and detailed, but are largely designed to ensure caretakers have no exposed flesh when dealing with patients or doffing PPE.

This is one area where smart technology and the "Internet of Things" (IoT) can come into play. The IoT makes intelligent monitoring and response to the inputs from multiple networked sensors possible. In a "smart disease control" scenario, these sensors can even be wearable on skin, integrated into clothing or a building, or on medical probes. Intelligent software can monitor and correlate the 'events' from these sensors to look for dangerous patterns. For example, if exposed flesh is detected on a doctor before she goes into the patient's room, a series of events could be triggered such as locking the patient's door to stop the doctor from entering. Another doctor would be summoned by text message at the same time, so as not to endanger the patient.

Or hospitals can monitor patients, doctors and nursing staff to watch for breaches in protocol. For example, if a nurse takes off her second pair of gloves the wrong way - enabling bodily fluids to touch her skin - an alarm could sound before she can touch her face.

Smart disease control monitoring technology could ensure that all surfaces of a patient's room are thoroughly cleaned, sending alerts if anything was missed, because the Ebola virus can live on a dry surface such as a doorknob for several hours, according to the CDC.

The use of robotics, in addition to monitoring and surveillance, is another way to help control the spread of disease. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts is looking to repurpose a manufacturing robot, Baxter, to help keep Ebola health care workers safe by removing their clothing.

WPI, Texas A&M and the University of California, Berkeley are working on repurposing existing disaster zone robots to focus on Ebola. Another robot WPI has begun adapting is the Autonomous Exploration Rover (Aero), originally designed for space exploration, to help with decontamination work. By adding sprayer tanks to the body of the robot Ebola zone cleaners could operate the robot remotely, avoiding the risk of infection.

Hospitals can also use smart monitoring technology to help deter the spread of Ebola by replaying events from the start of an infectious disease case. They can highlight all of the caregivers who were in contact with the patient, as well as all of the other caregivers and patients they were in touch with. Or, if an "at risk" Ebola patient is detected outside an authorized area, the nearest nurse could be alerted.

The possibilities are endless. Such smart monitoring can be used at intelligent hospitals to control less infectious diseases than Ebola. For example, if a nurse leaves an influenza patient's room followed by the same nurse entering another patient's room, and the latex glove dispenser or hand sanitizer is not deployed within 15 seconds, an audio-visual alarm sounds.

Smart monitoring technology could even be used to prevent bioterrorism. A city government agency could be alerted if any three separate clinics in the area have prescribed drugs within the past few days that may be used to treat symptoms of bioterrorism. Once alerted, the city would be better prepared to track the terrorists and prevent a biological attack.

Use of the Internet of Things and smart disease control monitoring technology offers great potential to limit the spread of disease. Using this technology, clinics can begin to automate rules to determine breaches in protocol or suspicious patterns. Immediate alerts of dangers can enable the appropriate actions to be taken instantly to head off problems. This is one way to assist with the monumental human effort that goes into infectious disease control. Technology might not save the world, but it can help save a patient or a caregiver's life.