– With porous borders and disease outbreaks inside and around Uganda, authorities are using Twitter to speed up response times
By Halima Athumani
KAMPALA, Uganda – Uganda’s Ministry of Health is using Twitter to collect real time information about disease outbreaks in the East African country.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency at the Public Health Emergency Operations Center in Kampala, Dr. Issa Makumbi said: “We set up this center in July 2013 because of the constant disease outbreaks and we needed to prepare and cope with them more effectively and efficiently.”
The World Health Organization’s Department of Global Capacities, Alert and Response established the Public Health Emergency Operations Center Network in order to strengthen global collaboration and WHO member states’ capacity for effective responses to public health hazards.
“Ebola and Marburg were rampant at the time and since then we have had five Ebola outbreaks and three Marburg outbreaks,” Dr. Makumbi, the center’s manager, said.
Other disease outbreaks plaguing Uganda within its borders include meningitis, cholera, yellow fever, typhoid and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
Uganda is currently battling a malaria outbreak in its north that has left over 167 people dead and another 22,000 infected.
Dr. Makumbi said: “These diseases are not going to go away tomorrow, so the solution is to detect and respond to them early so as to stop their transmission to vulnerable communities.”
He added that Uganda adheres to International health regulations that call for the control of disease outbreaks so as to maintain national public health security and in turn contribute to global health security.
Sam Kasozi, an information systems expert at the Emergency Operations Center, told Anadolu Agency: “With our Twitter handle @MOHUg_PHEOC we follow many local and international accounts but with an emphasis on those that pertain to Uganda and outbreaks.”
Inside the center, there are two large screens, one airing normal television and the other Twitter.
“We decided to adopt TweetDeck because it helps us customize specific search words such as ‘disease outbreaks Uganda’,” Kasozi told Anadolu Agency.
“So we have priority diseases and our surveillance focuses on Marburg, meningitis, yellow fever, West Nile virus and Rift Valley virus,” he said.
The next Twitter column is for prevailing outbreaks such as malaria, cholera, rubella, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and measles.
“We separate them so that we can easily pick out an outbreak and quickly respond to it,” he said.
The last column is used to detect International disease outbreaks especially from neighboring countries, such as Kenya.
These include a cholera outbreak in South Sudan, another cholera outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo – due to the influx of refugees from Burundi – and Ebola in West Arica, among others.
The Emergency Operation Center is under the direct control of the Director General of Health Services in the Ministry of Health.
Kasozi said that, “If something comes up and it is newsworthy, we immediately communicate it to the surveillance division which takes immediate action and prepares to get on the ground.”
The center also has a laboratory specialist and a geographical information system specialist who, immediately after a disease outbreak is confirmed in any part of the country, finds the exact location of the outbreak before the rapid response teams are sent to investigate and respond to the situation.
Apart from Twitter, Uganda also gets information about disease outbreaks from the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control in the United States and ProMed.
Dr. Makumbi said that Uganda remains vulnerable to disease outbreaks because it is located near a hotspot known as the Congo basin, “which is a pool of new and old germs which can cause outbreaks, especially from wild animals.”
Uganda is also within the yellow fever and meningitis belts, which both produce outbreaks.
With regards to diseases imported from neighboring countries, Dr. Makumbi said that: “Uganda has porous borders where anyone can come in with any disease and they won’t be noticed.”