Excellent Idea of the Day: TB Tracker Halts Disease's Spread

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Patients with TB are identified by their fingerprints and logged into a database.
Microsoft Research

Biometric systems are used to track people. A researcher from Microsoft is showing they can also help keep tabs on the spread of tuberculosis, and even stop it.

Partnered with the non-profit project Operation Asha, Bill Thies, who works at Microsoft Research India, developed a way to use a simple fingerprint reader and a netbook to track tuberculosis patients in India.

This may sound big brother-ish, but it's important to make sure TB patients return to local clinics to get their medications. TB is relatively easy to treat and cure, with a standard course of antibiotics. But many patients don't keep taking the drugs because they feel better. "The challenge is to make sure they finish the course of treatment," Thies told Discovery News.

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In order to cure a bacterial infection, patients must take enough antimicrobial drugs to kill every last one of the germs. Otherwise, TB sufferers could end up with a drug-resistant strain of the disease.

That outcome is a lot more dangerous to the patient, and worse, it increases the odds that person will infect others.

The fingerprinting system is twofold. First, it identifies the patient. When patient visit local health centers, they place their fingers on a reader, which records the print. The fingerprint reader is connected to a netbook, which also stores the data relevant to that patient.

Second, the netbook uses the local cellular network to send SMS notifications to health-care workers if a patient misses an appointment. When that happens, the health-care worker can go talk to the patient and see what happened.

Thies told Discovery News that the authentication also keeps patients from sending someone else to the local health center in their place.

"Sometimes they will send their wives," he said.

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In a neighborhood where poverty is widespread, there is the danger the drugs will be re-sold. They should be taken under supervision in any case, Thies said, because in parts of India many are illiterate. Writing down how to take the proper dose wouldn't help them.

The other big issue is the cost. Thies noted that the fingerprint readers are simple models, as are the computers; the readers are only about $80 each. Both are off the shelf.

So far, Operation Asha has implemented the system across several Indian states. The components are cheap enough that local governments could issue the netbooks and readers for less money than they'd pay for custom-designed hardware. Using the local cell phone network also eliminates the need for high-speed Internet connections.

Operation Asha is looking at applying the same idea to other diseases that require a lot of follow-up, such as HIV, and Thies said there are hospitals in Uganda looking at it as well.

Theis will be giving a presentation on the project at Microsoft's New England Research & Development Center on Dec. 3.

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