Smartphones signal a new era in the fight against TB

26th March 2019 by Simren Gill

24th March 2019 marked World TB Day, created to raise awareness about tuberculosis worldwide. Robert Kock discovered the cause of tuberculosis on this day in 1882 and in the 137 years since, there has been a huge effort to combat this deadly disease.1 However, despite a definite improvement in diagnosis and treatment, TB is still a major epidemic killing 1.6 million people a year.2

TB remains a serious and deadly threat but if the right drugs are prescribed and taken properly it can be cured. Unfortunately, this is not always easy! To help, researchers are now applying technology to change the way TB is diagnosed and treated. Smartphones could radically transform the way we diagnose and treat TB.

A key factor in the success of treatment is making sure that drug regimens are adhered to and patients can be closely monitored – usually for at least 6 months. Technology developed by researchers at the University of California and John Hopkins University allows patients to send encrypted videos to public health workers who can watch videos securely rather than having to travel to visit patients.3 And it worked – video monitoring improved adherence which in turn not only can improve outcomes but also reduce costs.4

The real breakthrough with smartphone diagnosis came at the end of last year, when researchers from the UK and Malaysia developed a mobile phone testing system which can detect TB specific antibodies in sputum with 98% accuracy.5 The sputum is placed on a biosensor which simply changes colour based on the result. Then, using a smartphone camera a diagnosis can be delivered in seconds.5 This technology can be used without an internet connection and the only cost would be the biosensor. Using this technology in rural, hard to reach places could transform early diagnosis of TB and help people access care. Perhaps, with technologies such as these we could make the goal of a TB free world by 2030 a reality!5

In light of all the potential of mHealth, WHO published evidence-based recommendations for the use of digital technologies for TB treatment and adherence based on text messaging, medication event monitoring systems and video supported treatment. Who knows, maybe our smartphones could be our strongest weapon against TB?6