With more than 4 billion smartphones in use around the world, all with the potential to house apps that can help to monitor and manage public health crises, it is clear that they are the wave of the future of epidemic control.
With just one recorded case of community transmission of unknown origin on Tuesday, Australia appears to be on the cusp of winning its war against COVID-19. As the Australian Government is gearing up to cautiously re-open its economy and loosen lockdown measures, it is not taking any chances.
In an effort to keep the public safe, this week the Government launched COVIDSafe, a contact tracing smartphone application that was designed to deliver what its name promises: to slow the spread of the virus and to create a Covid-safe Australia so that restrictions can be eased safely.
How exactly does the app achieve this?
Users will first have to install COVIDSafe and register their information on the app. Once installed, it uses a Bluetooth signal to recognise and exchange a ‘digital handshake’ with another user which involves logging and encrypting the date, time, distance and duration of the contact when they come within 1.5m. Users will also be notified if they have had more than 15 minutes of close contact with another user who has tested positive for the virus.
The use of the contact tracing app to help ameliorate the virus has been, in large part, embraced by the Australian public, with some 2.9 million Australians downloading the app within just 24 hours of its launch. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison heralded the potential benefits of the app even likening it to ‘wearing sunscreen outside.’
It is hoped that if enough people use the COVIDSafe app, localised clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks can be contained rapidly so that the rest of Australia can maintain some normality.
I applaud the Australian people for all they have done to contain the epidemic, including the largescale uptake of this app, and I cannot help but draw comparisons with our own app and the way it is being used to manage yet another pandemic – that of myopia.
Much like the COVIDSafe app, plano monitors behaviour in real time and warns the user when they are at risk, though not from viral infection but from something equally invisible: the development of device dependency, myopia and the array of other undesirable consequences of too much screen time.
As the uptake of plano continues to increase around the world, we hope that it helps to both improve our understanding of the epidemiology of myopia as well as to directly help at the individual level to reduce the burden of the myopia epidemic.
With more than 4 billion smartphones in use around the world, all with the potential to house apps that can help to monitor and manage public health crises, it is clear that they are the wave of the future of epidemic control. And the crest of this wave is growing ever-higher, with apps being developed to track ebola and malaria epidemics, as well as other public health issues. No doubt, other disease niches will continue to be filled by this rapidly evolving technology.
In these trying times, it is hard to imagine a world without any restrictions, lockdowns or isolations. Fortunately, the development of health apps like COVIDSafe that protect populations from worse health outcomes is putting the world on the right track to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic sooner.
The success of these apps in large part depends on the extent to which populations worldwide embrace them. It is only then that their translational utility for helping the world will truly be realised.