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Utah tech company helps Liberia map Ebola outbreak

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(Courtesy Addressing Homes LLC) Cases of Ebola have been reported in the West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia, where primitive infrastructure and poor sanitation have exacerbated the outbreak. *Note: The photo was taken in July 2014 by an employee of Addressing Homes LLC.

By Harry Stevens

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 14 2014 01:01AM
Updated Aug 14, 2014 08:57AM

A Utah technology company is helping the Liberian government rein in the Ebola outbreak that has killed hundreds of Liberians since late March.

Addressing Homes, a technology company based in Midvale, has donated two of its portable mapping devices to Liberia. The devices, called AimObservers, will help Liberian health workers track the spread of the Ebola epidemic and direct citizens to treatment clinics.

The West African Ebola outbreak has claimed more than 1,000 lives since December, including 323 in Liberia, according to Healthmap.org, a website that collects reports of the virus.

As the pace of the outbreak has picked up, panic has overtaken the country. Utahn Nick Parkinson, who had been working for a U.S. Agency for International Development food program in Liberia, decided to pack up his family as infections increased.

"Liberians are scared," said Parkinson, who returned Monday to Utah. "They’re becoming less social, and really they’re locking themselves inside their houses."

Families of the dead are leaving bodies in the streets, Parkinson said, and the country’s already meager health services are overwhelmed.

Parkinson added that an economically advanced country such as the United States would be better prepared for such an outbreak. In Liberia, however, Ebola is spreading rapidly, and mapping the outbreak is a crucial first step in slowing it down.

"It is important to map the outbreak so you know where cases are and what facilities you have there to take care of them," World Health Organization spokeswoman Leticia Linn said in an email. "You want to know if you have a treatment center with trained health workers, protective gear, qualified labs and the ability to reach into the community to track people who have been exposed to the virus and tell them how to protect themselves."

Last Wednesday at 2 in the morning, Michael Olsen, chairman of Addressing Homes, received an urgent email from James Dorbor Jallah, the coordinator of Liberia’s Ebola Response Task Force.

Olsen has been working with the Liberian government since 2007 to create an address system for the country, so his company was a natural fit to help Liberia map its Ebola outbreak.

The email asked Olsen to devise a method of mapping the precise locations of neighborhood clinics, which have been placed on the front lines in the battle against the outbreak because the Liberian government closed several hospitals where doctors were infected.

Health officials equipped with AimObservers — dark-gray devices with 3-inch-wide screen — can record the coordinates of a clinic simply by taking a photograph of it. That information is relayed back to Addressing Homes, which then places the clinic on a map. Officials on the ground in Liberia can use the map to direct people who may have contracted Ebola to clinics where they can be treated or quarantined.

Pinpointing the clinics is only half the battle. Most Liberian homes lack addresses, making it difficult to precisely track the trajectory and speed of the outbreak. Health officials also will use the AimObservers to map where infections have been reported.

"We will literally map where the dead bodies are being found," Olsen said, "and then government officials will be able to go in there with some kind of education and say, ‘Look, you people may have Ebola, but we don’t know unless we can check you.’

"They think that’s one of the reasons it’s spreading so fast," Olsen added. "Nobody’s going in to be checked."

Liberian government workers began using the AimObservers on Tuesday, and Addressing Homes will use the data to have a map up and running within the week. Olsen said the map also will be available for public viewing on the company’s website.

hstevens@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Harry_Stevens

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