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Arizona Researchers Ask Citizen Scientists to Help Track Zika and Other Mosquito Borne Diseases with New App

While Congress passed short term legislation last week that includes federal funding for emergency response to prevent the spread of Zika — the mosquito-borne disease linked to severe birth defects — researchers at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health developed and today launched a crowd-sourcing mobile app to help detect outbreaks.

Kidenga is a community based disease detection system which allows the team of public health investigators to track day-biting mosquito populations within a community and identify people who have symptoms of illness. The app also provides users with county-level confirmed case information, educational material and up-to-date news on mosquito activity.

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[Photo: University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health researchers created Kidenga, a crowd-sourcing mobile app to help detect mosquito-borne disease outbreaks.]

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 17,694 people in U.S. Territories (American Samoa, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands) and 3,176 in the continental U.S. have been infected by the Zika virus, which is contracted both by mosquito bite and sex.

Mosquito borne diseases like Zika, dengue and chikungunya are a growing threat to the U.S. and global community. Symptoms range from mild to severe and many cases are never reported through traditional surveillance. Prevention and control efforts only can be effectively targeted when public health professionals have information on where and when diseases are occurring.

To help public health agencies detect these viruses as early as possible, researchers at the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health are looking for citizen scientists to use Kidenga to help collect data on Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits Zika, dengue and chikungunya and other diseases. Any resident of the U.S. and Canada over age 13 can use the app.

Once a week, Kidenga will ask users to report mosquito activity and symptoms near their home. Users also can view aggregate information from other user reports within their zip code; get the latest news on Zika, dengue and chikungunya; and learn how to protect themselves, their family and community from diseases spread by mosquitoes.

“If enough people use the app it may be able to detect zip codes that appear to have an uptick of suspicious symptoms,” said Dr. Kacey Ernst, infectious disease epidemiologist at the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health. “This early alert is critical to reduce or prevent further spread of the virus. Communities can benefit from both the educational information in the app as well as the data it is generating.”

Users in Arizona, Florida, and Texas, where mosquito season is approximately June through October, will have access to confirmed Zika, dengue and chikungunya case information by county. The research team will focus on rolling out new states with attention to higher-risk areas moving forward.

Not all of the United States has the Aedes genus of mosquitoes so Kidenga focuses on those areas with the highest risk of transmission. Florida and Texas have some of the highest Aedes aegypti populations in the country and both states have had previous outbreaks of dengue. Florida has ongoing Zika transmission and had one locally-acquired case of chikungunya in 2014. Arizona was included because of well-established Aedes aegypti populations, significant potential for viral introduction, and the vector control operation in Maricopa County to validate data.

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[Photo: University of Arizona researchers from the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and the Bio Computing Facility collaborated on the Kidenga app. From left: Ms. Andrea Rivera, Dr. Chris Schmidt, Dr. Kacey Ernst, Mr. Nirav Merchant and Mr. James Romine.]

Dr. Ernst says that controlling Aedes aegypti is one of the most difficult tasks that public health officials are struggling to achieve to reduce transmission risk. “It requires buy in ranging from grassroots community initiatives to government-operated programs. With more information, we hope that more people will join the fight to control them.”

Traditional surveillance of mosquito-borne diseases relies on routine tracking of individuals who seek care, get tested and get reported to the health department. While this is the most valid way to determine cases, it may miss people who are not seeking care or don’t get tested. Sometimes people with these diseases don’t have any symptoms at all, or have mild symptoms, and may not go to the doctor. Since these diseases can have very serious consequences, it’s extremely important that public health agencies know when these diseases may be circulating in a community.

The research team hopes to work with health departments and mosquito control districts in high risk areas to evaluate the validity of the data reported into Kidenga. This kind of disease detection has been done in the U.S. and other countries to monitor the flu, and has been effective in detecting outbreaks earlier than usual.

Kidenga is a collaboration between the UA College of Public Health and the UA Bio Computing Facility (BCF) at the Arizona Research Laboratories. Students developed the mobile device application under the direction of Mr. Nirav Merchant, director of information technology at the Arizona Research Laboratories and director of BCF. Significant support also was provided by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Skoll Global Threats Fund.

“This is a timely project, very few health surveillance, citizen science apps focus on managing the contributed data, extracting value and providing verified information back to participants. Kidenga has a nice balance that allows researchers and participants to help each other, making good use of mobile technology,” said Mr. Merchant.

The UA undergraduate students who worked on this project come from the computer information science and engineering disciplines. “They have rigorous software engineering training, and use what they learn to work on research projects as contributing junior software engineers,” added Mr. Merchant.

Dr. Ernst believes the app will keep growing in functionality. “We already are envisioning how we can better help communities learn about how to control mosquitoes and the diseases they carry, through games, climate-based alerts and other strategies to keep people engaged and knowledgeable. Aedes mosquitoes can transmit many arboviruses; dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, Zika and there are several recent reports of the circulation of another virus, Mayaro, in Haiti.”

Kidenga is available for Android and iOS. For more information, visit the website at kidenga.org

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