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Hacking Zika: Solving for an International Health Threat

It’s Sunday morning at MGH’s Richard B. Simches Research Center, where small groups sit huddled around laptops and empty coffee cups, bleary-eyed from a late night of working to address the public health threat that has dominated headlines for the past three months. It’s only a matter of hours before the two-day Zika hackathon hosted by MGH and CAMTech comes to a close.

The first hackers I meet are Dr. Roy Mayega and Debora Naatujuna Nkwanga, of Makerere University’s ResilientAfrica Network in Uganda. The pair traveled roughly 7,000 miles to MGH to participate in the hackathon.

Mayega and Naatujuna have conceived of a web-based platform they call “Unearthing the Silent Signals,” which collects siloed social and ecological data sets from different sectors such as Uganda’s ministries of finance, health and agriculture. The hope is that these data sets contain trends that can be correlated to epidemics and used for preemptive epidemic tracking.

“We come from a region in east Africa that is a geographic hotspot for epidemics—in our region almost every six months we have a notable outbreak,” explains Mayega. “As an epidemiologist I respond to outbreaks and investigate possible causative factors. The problem with these kinds of factors is that they are proximal risk factors—they do not tell us about future risk, they tell us who is at risk now.”

Mayega and Naatujuna have identified a variety of reliable databases that could feed their data collection repository, on which they could then run statistical models to predict the optimum sociological conditions that will lead to an epidemic. “Bringing them together is a powerful tool that can help public health specialists to mitigate disasters,” says Naatujuna.

Next I speak to Julia Davids, a student studying industrial design at RISD, and Deborah Pereira, a UX designer with a focus on healthcare. Davids and Pereira are members of a team Phairies, working to motivate children between 7-11 in Puerto Rico to help prevent the mosquito reproduction by identifying standing water sources where the mosquitoes lay their eggs. Phairies engages children through narrative—specifically a series of beautiful yet playful pictures drawn by Davids— that aims to teach children about the mosquito life cycle. “We’re teaching them how to be scouts, or little explorers, in their own homes,” explains Davids. “We’re showing them central hiding spots for egg lairs and they can then look to adults in their home or community to help deal with them.”

The participation of designers like Davids and Pereira is indicative of a growing trend to leverage design to solve healthcare’s problems. “We’re super exited to have designers as a big contingent here” says Elizabeth Bailey, a director at CAMTech. “We felt as if the consumer interface and human centered design was going to be critical to deploying these solutions and getting the messaging out.”

With that said, there is plenty of room for more traditional, clinical solutions. Rebecca Ehrenkranz, an MPH candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Bobby Brooke Herrera, a doctoral student at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, described their team, Flavigen MXD as “The diagnostics group.”

Herrera, Ehrenkranz, and their teammates are adapting a T-cell-based assay that has already been proven to work for viruses such as HIV, for use diagnosing Zika and other viruses on the mosquito vector.

“The problem with the current diagnostics is that they’re not specific and they’re not sensitive,” explains Herrera. “Using a T-cell-based assay as an alternative approach to diagnosing patients with Zika or other flaviviruses eliminates the problem of diagnostics being not sensitive and not specific.”

The test, which runs for about $0.91, takes only a few hours to complete. “We envision that using the preexisting healthcare infrastructure, teams could go out and reach members of the community who need this Zika testing, collect the blood samples, run the lab, and get back to people with their results all within the same day,” says Ehrenkranz.

Phaires TeamUnearthing the Silent Signals, Phairies, and Flavigen MXD were only three of the 15 total teams that presented on Sunday night in front of a panel of judges. Phairies won the award for Greatest Health Impact along with team Relix, who developed a mobile tool for identifying areas at high risk of mosquito breeding. They were also joined by team Larva Finder, who won Most Innovative Solution for their mobile application that detects the presence of specific larva species, and team LAD (Larvicide Automatic Dispenser) who won Most Implementable Solution for their dispenser that ensures adequate larvicide dosing.

“The response to the Zika hackathon has been so inspiring and it’s unbelievable how quickly people have mobilized” says Bailey. ‘The sheer brain power here—all coming together to work on something as important as this— it’s why CAMTech exists.”

Abigail Ballou

Abigail Ballou

    Abby Ballou is the managing editor of MedTech Boston. She has a B.A. and M.Phil in English literature from NYU and the CUNY Graduate Center, respectively. When she isn't writing and editing for MedTech Boston, Abby enjoys reading, rock climbing, watching classic movies and listening to opera.

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