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[MANILA] Devastating floods in the Philippines over the past week have provided the first test of a recently upgraded rapid alert system using text messaging to provide data on disease outbreaks during natural emergencies.

Officials from the country's department of health (DOH), which was responsible for developing the 'Surveillance in Post Extreme Emergencies and Disasters' (SPEED) system, say that it is too soon to quantify an apparent reduction in health  problems resulting from the upgrade.

However, they say that the new system has already significantly reduced response times to medical emergencies, such as the potential outbreak of fatal diseases in evacuation centres, hospitals and other health facilities.

SPEED enables health officials and workers to use mobile phone text messages to send in reports on communicable and non-communicable health conditions, and to monitor health trends.

Data sent this way are collated and analysed by the SPEED server based in Manila, allowing government emergency officials to respond quickly to local situations and immediately offer health services, preventing the possible outbreak or spread of diseases.

Carmencita Banatin, head of the emergency management unit at the DOH, told SciDev.Net that in previous emergency situations, SPEED had demonstrated that it was capable of cutting disease incidence.

This ability is crucial for a country that stretches over 7,000 islands, and is considered to be one of the most natural disaster prone countries in the world. For example, the current flooding following in the wake of Typhoon Saola and has so far affected several million people in 80 cities and towns across the country, resulting in at least 49 deaths.

Banatin said that when Typhoon Ondoy (known internationally as Ketsana) occurred in September 2009, SPEED was not yet in operation, and there were 3,862 cases of leptospirosis (a zoonotic disease commonly transmitted to humans through exposure to water contaminated with animal urine).

"In contrast, with SPEED [in place], during Typhoon Sendong (Washi), only 249 leptospirosis cases were reported, as SPEED was able to detect early cases of the disease, and appropriate interventions were carried out to contain possible outbreaks."

SPEED is supported by the WHO, and began operation in July 2010. To prepare for its current expansion, a 3-day simulation exercise was held last month, to test the readiness of around 3,300 health workers and managers nationwide. 

The DOH is currently negotiating with two major telecommunications companies to provide a free access code for the reporting system.

Soe Nyunt-U, WHO representative to the Philippines, told SciDev.Net that although there are, at present, no plans to replicate SPEED in other countries, the Philippines is keen to share its experiences with anyone interested.

"Countries who also regularly experience emergencies and disasters may find a system like SPEED useful," Nyunt-U said.