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This award-winning blog supplements the articles in Hospital Infection Control & Prevention.

Smartphones and ingenious disease: A tale of transmission

“Technology causes problems as well as solves problems. Nobody has figured out a way to ensure that, as of tomorrow, technology won't create problems. Technology simply means increased power, which is why we have the global problems we face today.”--Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel. The power of the smartphone can be wielded for good or evil it appears, thwarting disease transmission or aiding and abetting it. Let’s begin with the good news. The Kenya Ministry of Health, along with collaborating researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that smartphone use was cheaper than traditional paper survey methods to gather disease surveillance information, after the initial set–up cost. Moreover, survey data collected with smartphones also had fewer errors and were more quickly available for analyses than data collected on paper, according to a study presented Tuesday at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta. Researchers compared survey data collection methods at four influenza surveillance sites in Kenya. At each site, surveillance officers identified patients with respiratory illness and administered a brief questionnaire that included demographic and clinical information. Some of the questionnaires were collected using traditional paper methods, and others were collected using HTC Touch Pro2 smartphones using a proprietary software program called the Field Adapted Survey Toolkit (FAST). “Collecting data using smartphones has improved the quality of our data and given us a faster turnaround time to work with it,” says Henry Njuguna, M.D., sentinel surveillance coordinator at CDC Kenya. “It also helped us save on the use of paper and other limited resources.” But the marriage between technology and public health has a short honeymoon -- if there ever was one. On the downside, we must also report that similar smartphone technology is suspected of somewhat literally increasing transmission of syphilis in Sacramento, CA. According to an article by the Sacramento Bee, local doctors diagnosed 41 cases of primary and secondary syphilis in the 1st half of 2011. In the 2nd half, they identified 65 cases, an increase of 60%. Taken together, the 106 new cases in 2011 were twice as many as Sacramento saw the year before, and the county's highest annual total in at least a decade. A Sacramento County communicable disease investigator quoted in the article suspects a surprising culprit for the recent rise: smartphones. Though the evidence cited is strictly anedoctal, the general perception is that social networks and smartphones have made it easier for people seeking casual sex to find willing partners. Some GPS-powered apps enable people to broadcast their location to others seeking "hookups" in their vicinity, the paper reported. "It's been going on for a while, but I think a lot of people are having more access to computers, and the creation of the smartphone definitely has made an impact on quick access to partners," the investigator said.