By adaptive - May 2nd, 2016

As Brazilian authorities struggle to contain Zika infections and two diseases transmitted by the same mosquito, a number of smartphone applications have joined the fight. Camila Fontana reports from São Paulo

Brazil’s tech community has joined the fight to combat the Zika virus. Now if you’re trying to avoid or treat Zika, rest assured there’s an app for that. There are apps with tips on how to prevent the Aedes aegypti (yellow fever mosquitoes) from breeding, avoid getting bitten, identify symptoms, find medical attention and medication, tell the offending mosquito apart from regular ones, and even warn government agencies of places where it can reproduce, such as stagnant water pools and trash bins, by using camera and GPS functions.

Engaging the population is vital to contain the epidemics, but access to information on the internet may be costly, as 75 percent of mobile phone users in Brazil are on prepaid plans and every call minute and megabyte used is carefully tracked — even more now as the country struggles with its worst economic recession ever.

On the other hand, the potential to engage Brazilians through technology is enormous because there are 1.3 active mobile lines per person in Brazil and 95.8 percent of the population is covered by a 3G mobile broadband network.

With that in mind, San Diego-based Qualcomm Technologies partnered with Brazil’s Health Ministry and the Communications Ministry and launched in March an app dedicated to combating Zika that is free of data charges.

It works under a Sponsored Data system, called 0800 Saúde (in Brazil, the code for toll-free calls is 0800; the same service is also known as 1800 Data in the United States). The app offers prevention tips, geo-localization of public healthcare centers and pharmacies distributing free medication, and scientific updates about microcephaly in newborns whose mothers were infected with the virus while pregnant.

“Zika is a good case of information that must reach the population quickly, cheaply and efficiently. It was a good match with 0800 Data because it spreads relevant messages via mobile without a cost barrier. It is a good example that can be replicated,” Oren Pinsky, Director of New Business Development for Qualcomm Latin America told Open Mobile Media in an interview. The company is in talks with education and traffic authorities in several Brazilian states to implement the system.

“Sponsored Data can bring mobile data to the masses, the same way prepaid wireless services helped to democratize mobile voice,” Pinsky added.

The technology strategy to fight Zika in Brazil builds on an experience applied by Airtel Nigeria, which began offering zero-rated access to an Ebola information hot site during the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

“Sponsored Data can increase efficiency in delivering public services to citizens who would otherwise be unable to afford a mobile broadband connection. It may also act as a significant marketing tool for mobile government services,” according to a Frost & Sullivan white paper published last year.

Growing epidemics

Clearly there’s a growing need for disseminating information, and an opportunity for those providing it as the epidemics grow. Zika cases were first diagnosed in Brazil in April 2015, aggravating the healthcare emergency caused by the Aedes aegypti. The mosquito, which can lay eggs in water bottle caps with just a few drops in them, spread from hot and humid tropical areas to every state in the country.

The number of probable cases of Dengue fever, which may evolve to severe bleeding and shock, nearly tripled from 555.4 thousand in 2014 to 1.53 million last year, when 811 people died from the disease. The epidemic is picking up in 2016, as doctors identified 495 thousand new probable cases of Dengue in just the first nine weeks of the year.

A third disease carried by the mosquito is the Chikungunya virus, which often leaves survivors with life-long joint pains, and has gone from less than five thousand cases in Brazil last year to almost 14 thousand in the first nine weeks of 2016.

There are no official statistics on Zika cases because most infected people present light or no symptoms and the virus is only detectable on blood samples for a few days. Estimates range from 500 thousand to 1.5 million cases in Brazil last year. 

Smaller players

Smaller companies are tapping this demand for information and any kind of help as cases of Zika, Dengue fever and Chikungunya fever — which are all transmitted by the Aedes aegypti — grow at alarming rates. Searches on Apple’s App Store and on the Google Play Store resulted in more than 30 applications in the local language focused on one of the diseases or on the potentially deadly mosquito.

“There is huge demand for health information in Brazil because patients are seen by doctors very quickly and leave their appointments full of questions,” said Reginaldo Pereira, CEO of Descubranet, a search-engine optimization agency based in São Paulo that targets medical professionals. 

However, he wonders how many of these apps are used more than a few times. “App developers often just need a cool name and catchy image, and may get a huge number of downloads to improve their rankings,” said Pereira, explaining that most developers of healthcare apps make money by selling advertising space or user registration data required for downloading the apps. 

Other entrepreneurs are using apps related to the epidemics as part of a broader service package that can be offered to municipalities and private organizations, such as schools. 

SaiZika is an app that supports competitions among children and teenagers, who earn points when they inform authorities — using GPS positioning and photos — of mosquito-breeding spots that need to be cleaned up, and even more points when they clean up themselves or engage family and neighbors in the effort.

The two companies that developed the app — graphic-design enterprise Kadima Comunicação Visual and Eli A. Marketing — make money by setting up back-offices at schools and municipal agencies to process alerts sent by the kids through the app or website.

Another way of making money is selling ad space to local sponsors, who may also pay for the prizes given to the winning kids, such as cash, field trips and smartphones.

“Most apps have inactive users, they are not even good enough for showing banners,” said Thiago Vinicius Correa, owner of Brasilia-based Kadima. “We tried to set SaiZika apart by motivating young people to search for more info on our app about the problem, and we achieved greater mobilization in the fight because adolescents care a lot about challenges,” he said, adding that competitions often result in local media stories. “It’s free publicity for us.”

comments powered by Disqus