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London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Malaria Centre

Drones and phones: how mobile tech is fighting global diseases

A thermal camera drone hovers against the setting sun in the campus in Malaysia

A thermal camera drone hovers against the setting sun in the campus in Malaysia - Joshua Paul for LSHTM.

04 August 2017
By Jacqui Thornton August 2017

From phones to drones

Drones controlled via tablets are helping teams at the School investigate the rise and spread of malaria.

In Malaysian Borneo, Kimberly Fornace, Research Fellow in the School’s Faculty of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, is using two drones to map deforestation after a surge in human cases of ‘monkey malaria’, a strain of the disease that normally only affects macaques, caused by the parasite Plasmodium knowlesi.  It’s believed clearing of trees is helping monkeys spread this to humans due to increased contact.

This form of the disease is commonly misdiagnosed as a mild form of malaria called P. malariae as it looks similar under the microscope. But the monkey form - now the most common type of malaria in the state of Sabah - is severe in humans and has a high case fatality rate, meaning a greater chance of dying if infected and hospitalised. This is because of the parasite’s rapid replication cycle.

In addition to having the highest case fatality rate, P. knowlesi has the highest proportion of severe disease, according to one study.

There are believed to have been between 700 and 1,000 cases of P. knowlesi in humans in Sabah, with five to six deaths each year. However, the death rate is now falling due to a new policy of unified treatment with an artesunate compound that is much better at treating monkey malaria in humans.

Interestingly, the parasite doesn’t appear to affect the monkeys. The majority of macaques in the area test positive for knowlesi and researchers suspect they have low-level asymptomatic infections.

Dr Fornace believes that as trees were cut down for agricultural development and timber sales there was more contact between monkeys and humans leading to the increase in human cases.

The team at the School are therefore using drones fitted with cameras to picture and map the changing forest landscape. Separately, they are tracking the monkeys’ movements through GPS collars placed on the animals to see how the macaques are moving in response to the forest clearing and if they are going closer to the houses and closer to the people.

While monitoring the forests with a £10,000 fixed wing drone, programmed and operated by a laptop, the team now also uses a helicopter drone with a thermal camera attached to find macaques in the forest using their heat signature. This helicopter drone is programmed from a tablet and was made in collaboration with the Sabah Wildlife Department in a project led by Chris Drakeley, Professor of Infection & Immunity at the School.

“Compared with satellite data when you look at the costs and the availability, it works out much, much cheaper,” said Dr Fornace.

Research so far has found that people in villages with significant deforestation around them were more likely to be infected with the P.knowlesi form of malaria.

In Northern Sabah, the LSHTM researchers found that villages where substantial areas of forest had been cleared in the past five years had 1.5 to three times higher incidence of this form of malaria reported.

The drone data also revealed that that deforestation altered the macaques’ movement patterns, in some cases causing them to move nearer to humans.

Dr Fornace and Prof Drakeley believe their drones – and the revelations that came from them – have had a positive effect.  Public health officials from the Ministry of Health are now being more proactive about malaria prevention measures such as insecticide spraying and distribution of bed nets when tree clearing is going on, they said. 

The next step, they say, is to develop risk maps to look at places that are more likely to get P. knowlesi, and predict where might be affected in the future to inform malaria control programmes.

But such high-level technology isn’t the only way mobile technology is being harnessed at the School. Even something as simple as an old Nokia is being used to help women stay free of STIs and use effective contraception after an abortion.

Except from 'Drones and phones: how mobile tech is fighting global diseases', for original article, with extra content, visit the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's main website.