Andy Tattem and colleagues published a really interesting study in the Malaria Journal yesterday. They conclude from the study that anonymous mobile phone records provide valuable information on human movement patterns in areas that are typically data-sparse. Estimates of human movement patterns from Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania suggest that imported malaria risk from this group is heterogeneously distributed; a few people account for most of the risk for imported malaria.
In combination with spatial data on malaria endemicity and transmission models, movement patterns derived from phone records can inform on the likely sources and rates of malaria importation. Such information is important for assessing the feasibility of malaria elimination and planning an elimination campaign.
But then one wonders. Is such information really needed if it comes to eliminating malaria from Zanzibar? What could have been learned from places like Mauritius that manage the influx of Plasmodium carriers very well and have not had a falciparum outbreak for decades? Clearly the Mauritians are on top of this, and did and do not need data from telephone companies. They just do it, and do it well. Admittedly, the distance from mainland Tanzania to Zanzibar is much smaller than mainland Africa (or Madagascar) to Mauritius, but still, there will be a lot of sea and air transport reaching Mauritius with potential parasite carriers.
Phone data may indeed support the better understanding of the risks for parasite introduction from mainland Tanzania to Zanzibar. Beyond that, it is down to the hard work of case management and vector control. Eliminating malaria from Zanzibar and the Dar region would significantly reduce the risk of re-introduction of the disease back to the island, so malaria in Dar and its surroundings may be the key to success.