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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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Drop and Give Me Data! Innovation Boot Camp Challenges Students to Build Global Health Tools

By Kimberly Thigpen Tart

The term “boot camp” typically conjures images of young soldiers in fatigues doing push-ups in the mud while being yelled at by a menacing drill sergeant. Although the experience of participants in the Triangle Global Health Consortium’s (TGHC) recent Innovation Boot Camp didn’t have them nose-down in the dirt, it did involve some pretty intense brainstorming, research, and technology development over a fast-paced three months. Two teams of students and professionals took on the challenge to create innovative solutions to real global health problems, with one team focusing its efforts on the use of climate and environmental data to predict infectious disease risks.

SkeeterTracker Team

The SkeeterTracker Team presents their tool.
(Photo courtesy of TGHC)

The TGHC partnered with The Medical Innovators Collaborative (MEDIC), a veteran-founded, nonprofit spinout of the University of North Carolina (UNC) and North Carolina State’s Biomedical Engineering Department, to provide coaching and technical support to the teams. NIEHS, which is the first federal member of the TGHC, asked colleague Joshua Glasser from the Department of State to devise a global environmental health challenge and mentor a team toward a solution. Glasser, a foreign affairs officer in the department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, collaborates with NIEHS on a range of global health issues. He also happens to be a UNC-Chapel Hill alum.

During his career, Glasser has seen how difficult it can be to predict not only the emergence of infectious diseases, but also key risk factors such as the range and abundance of msoquitoes. Better prediction is critical for better preparedness, so he challenged his team to devise a program that made use of environmental variables, such as temperature and rainfall, to forecast the suitability for a disease vector. Worldwide vector borne diseases account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases and kill more than 1 million people each year).

As the focus of its Boot Camp challenge, one team chose the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries viruses such as Dengue and Zika. The team focused on Burundi, which faces a heavy burden of vector-borne disease. The team worked with Glasser and MEDIC mentors to develop a tool they dubbed “SkeeterTracker,” playing off the American nickname for mosquitoes. SkeeterTracker, a smartphone app, pulls real-time, geographically-based rainfall data from available online data sources and uses it to predict the risk of people encountering mosquitoes. This information is sent to a user’s phone by email or SMS (text) to help them avoid contact with the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

A number of factors make Burundi a good candidate location for use of such an app. Mosquito-borne diseases are a major contributor to the health burden in the country. Over 47% of the population uses mobile phones, so the intervention has a good chance of in-reach through social media campaigns. A technological solution would also complement current vector control interventions used in the country, including insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying, entomological monitoring, and mosquito-repellant soap. Because Burundi also has a high poverty rate, a free phone app that could help users avoid mosquitoes would be a cost-effective preventive measure.

The other Boot Camp team worked to create a “clinic in a box” toolkit including basic medical equipment to enable community health workers to provide maternal, child, and primary care in low-resource settings. Both teams presented their innovative solutions in April at an event during Switchpoint, an annual global health and innovation conference hosted by IntraHealth International in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. In an anonymous evaluation, one team member said how much they appreciated the opportunity “to work on a novel project with a wonderfully collaborative, dynamic team.”

The SkeeterTracker team is exploring continuing to work with MEDIC and other TGHC partners to test and further refine the tool, including potentially developing a user version in French and expanding the number of locations covered in the app. Other goals include potentially partnering with UNICEF or other stakeholder groups to disseminate the app and encourage its use. The team included Takiyah Ball, M.S., M.P.H., North Carolina State University, College of Veterinary Medicine; Tonya Hinton, M.A., N.B.C.T., Athens Drive Magnet High School, Center for Medical Sciences and Global Health Initiatives; PJ Halvorsen, Ph.D., NIEHS; and Stephanie Lola and Phian Tran, North Carolina State University.

TGHC’s mission is “to establish North Carolina as an international center for research, training, education, advocacy, and business dedicated to improving the health of the world's communities.” The group also is committed to preparing the next generation of global health leaders. TGHC Executive Director Claire Neal said, “We were impressed and inspired by the ingenuity and dedication of our boot camp teams, and look forward to seeing their continued impact in the field of global health.”