During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 1-10, we will be featuring the role that Science, Technology & Innovation plays in Global Health.

This originally appeared on the InterAction Blog.

I consider myself extremely fortunate and even spoiled in this 21st century with smart phones and so much mobile technology available. If I ever feel there is a need to make my life more convenient with technology, chances are I can go to the app store to download some utility that will help. And, even if it’s not 100% satisfactory, by virtue of having asked the question or conducted the search for this app, some techie out there is likely monitoring the query and I can probably be assured that in weeks, if not days, something better will be created.

So as I wrangle with the question of how the Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) community can more effectively and efficiently manage our disease control and elimination programs around the world, I hark back to how we can leverage the fact that almost 75% of the world have access to cell phones. The NTD sector should be paying close attention to the opportunities presented by the proliferation of mobile technology.

There has been interesting progress in the use of mobile technology, like this smart phone, in the fight against NTDs. Photo credit: InterAction

In April 2012, attendees of the Ninth Global Health and Innovation Conference overwhelmingly agreed that a key to transforming global health is to push the development of social enterprises toward mobile technology. The reach of mobile phones into even the poorest and most remote parts of the world has shown these devices to be the tool of choice for civil and social transformation.

Those working in the HIV sector were some of the first to leverage the utility of mobile phones to check on people living with HIV. As a substitute for home visits, which are expensive, time-intensive, and far from discreet, mobile technology became a key factor in dealing with the stigma of HIV. Mobile phones have also been used to send reminders to patients and caretakers to improve adherence to antiretroviral treatment regimens. Another Johnson & Johnson supported mHealth program, MAMA, is bringing health information to pregnant women in more than 40 countries.

Considering that more than two billion people worldwide are affected by NTDs, the development and use of mobile technology for preventing and controlling NTDs has lagged. However, one bright spot for the NTD sector is the development of mobile technology tools to report on the global prevalence of trachoma. Using data collected through surveys leveraging smart phones and SMS, comprehensive prevalence maps of the disease have been developed, which will greatly improve the tracking and treatment of individuals infected with NTDs. As noted by Dr. Simon Brooker of the London Center for Neglected Tropical Disease Research in The Guardian earlier in the year, “maps are important to the control and elimination of NTDs … [and] only now are we starting to develop this blueprint.”

Mobile technology can be used in many other facets of the control and elimination of NTDs, for example, informing communities when and where treatments will be distributed, sharing messages about the causes of infection and how to prevent them, and collecting and reporting treatment data to health centers.

Recently, there has been even more interesting progress in the use of mobile technology in the fight against NTDs. Isaac Bogoch and other researchers innovated a way to turn the lens of an iPhone camera into a field microscope to detect intestinal worms in childrens’ stool samples. This is particularly timely because the global health community is ramping up the administration of medicines donated to treat infection with intestinal worms, also known as soil-transmitted helminthes (STH).

The increase of treatments globally will mean a greater need for diagnostic testing to monitor the impact and effectiveness of the programs. This concept of converting a phone to a field microscope would reduce the cost of the testing by eliminating the need for desk top light microscopes. It will also allow for images to be saved for enhanced analysis later or sent to a central repository for batch analysis almost instantaneously. In addition, as the increased use of anti-parasitic medicines will result in an overall decrease in the number of STH in the infected populations, a more sensitive and robust diagnostic tool is needed. The authors noted that this is, indeed, the first generation of the mobile phone microscope for resource constrained settings, but that newer technologies are certain to come along to improve its sensitivity and specificity.

These recent developments in mapping and diagnostics reassure us that mobile technology for control of NTDs is gaining traction. With two billion people on our planet at risk of NTDs, there is a market for mobile technology to eliminate or control the NTDs. There is clearly still much to be done. The NTD community must encourage and leverage this potential to maximize the health and development gains that can be made using this technology in all aspects of our work. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

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