Fighting Mosquitoes in the Digital Age

Professor May O. Lwin explains how social media tools and mobile apps can help contain the spread of mosquito-borne diseases in today’s digital era.

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The advent of social media has dramatically altered the way we communicate and present ourselves in the digital era. But beyond picture-perfect squares on Instagram and live videos on Facebook, social media tools can also improve health communication efforts, according to a recently-concluded study by Professor May O. Lwin from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

Prof. Lwin and her team of researchers embarked on a research project to uncover the impact of social media on health crisis communication during the Zika virus outbreak in Singapore two years ago. They followed the conversation on the outbreak by monitoring both public announcements and user-generated posts on Facebook and Twitter.

“It was the first time in Singapore that we had a health outbreak in the age of social media,” said Prof. Lwin, who is the Associate Dean of Special Projects in WKWSCI. She added that the use of social media was not as prevalent during the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks in 2003 and 2009 respectively.

Her team discovered that there had already been some conversation about Zika among netizens on social media before the outbreak. This was due to reports of Zika cases in other affected countries like Malaysia which led to speculation about the impending outbreak here.

“With social media, information is disseminated at a much faster pace by both citizens and the authorities (as compared to traditional media). This changes the way that authorities have to respond,” said Prof. Lwin.

“With social media, information is disseminated at a much faster pace by both citizens and the authorities, which means changes to the way that authorities have to be responding.”

PROFESSOR MAY O. LWIN

She explained that health authorities would be more pressured to address such negative reactions and panic from netizens before a potential outbreak.

By disseminating crucial information to the public before an impending outbreak, it gives them ample time to take necessary precautions. They can also cope better in the event of an outbreak, said Prof Lwin.

This research is not Prof. Lwin’s first health communication initiative that involves technology.

In 2015, she worked with the Centre of Social Media Innovations for Communities in NTU to develop Mo-Buzz, an app to help contain the spread of dengue. It was launched in Colombo, Sri Lanka in that same year.

Back then, dengue cases in Sri Lanka had increased drastically from 8,931 cases in 2002 to 29,777 cases in 2015, according to Remedium One, a Sri Lankan research company.

Through the app, users can report mosquito-infested sites to the health authorities and receive real-time information about dengue outbreaks. The use of Mo-Buzz, coupled with indoor fogging, “drastically reduced” the number of reported dengue cases in Colombo at the end of 2015, chief medical officer of health Dr. Ruwan Wijayamuni of the Colombo Municipal Council told the Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka).

“This does motivate me to (continue to) improve the health and livelihood of as many people as possible,” said Prof. Lwin.  

She is currently working with the Colombo Municipal Council to develop Mo-Buzz+ — an improved version of the original app — slated for launch at the end of the year.

The original version used separate databases for dengue cases in schools, hospitals and communities, which made it a challenge to track dengue outbreaks across the country. The improved version will integrate all databases to help health authorities identify mosquito hotspots more efficiently and accurately, said Prof. Lwin.

In the future, Prof. Lwin hopes to pioneer more research studies and develop more tools to fight mosquito-borne diseases in the region.

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