A different kind of cell network
Tracking tuberculosis through mobile location data
Using cell phones to track a deadly disease
For over 30 years, Whalen has been working with colleagues at Makerere University in Kampala to discover better ways of limiting TB’s spread.
Beginning in the 1990s, Whalen and a team of Ugandan scientists performed some of the first epidemiological studies on the effect of the HIV epidemic on its sister epidemic of TB in high-burden communities.
They formalized the standard public health practice of contact tracing— identifying and gathering information about any person who comes into contact with an infected patient—as a research tool to learn how TB spreads both inside a household and within social networks.
In 2018, he was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to map the TB transmission in Kampala using a combination of patient lab samples and cellphone records.
“Everyone is carrying a cellphone,” said Whalen. “By using archived cell phone records, we can map where TB cases move and measure how much time (patients) spent in different places.”
The team will integrate this data with a genomic profile of the M. tuberculosis bacteria from patient lab samples. Through genomic testing, Whalen can trace one unique tuberculosis bacterium through communities, and the cellphone data provides a timeline for where and when new patients are infected.
“Our world today is an increasingly interrelated global community,” said Whalen. “The diseases that threaten one community, one place, do not respect geographical boundaries.”
Whalen’s work not only changes the game for TB prevention in Uganda but also protects communities across the globe.