One of the toughest tasks in responding to a major public health emergency is getting accurate information about infectious disease outbreaks.  “EWARS in a box” contains all the equipment needed to establish surveillance and response activities, particularly in difficult and remote field settings without reliable internet or electricity.

Infections can spread even more quickly than rumours, particularly when there is a lack of reliable, up-to-date information to detect, track and respond to outbreaks.

Without a rapid response, infectious diseases are more likely to spread in humanitarian settings, putting people’s lives at risk and costing more money and resources in the long run.

WHO’s answer to this problem is in a rugged-looking black suitcase, known as “EWARS in a box”. It’s the product of the Early Warning, Alert and Response System project.

Inside the anonymous looking box is all the equipment needed to set up a disease surveillance system in difficult or remote field settings, within 24 hours. What’s more, it has been configured to work in places without reliable internet or electricity connections.

Flip the locks and, encased in protective grey foam, are two layers of equipment. On top is an ordinary laptop computer, a DataHub about the size of a box of chocolates, and 60 Android mobile phones, all preloaded with some simple, customized software. Underneath this equipment are all the necessary connectors and batteries.

A second, smaller case contains hand-held solar chargers so that the system can run without electricity.

The kit has been specifically designed for maximum mobility. Its size and weight mean that it can be handled by one person and checked in as personal airline baggage.

“The equipment needs to be very simple so we can set the system up as quickly as possible after an emergency occurs,” says Dr Chris Haskew, an epidemiologist who was part of the team that created the EWARS box.

“Each phone goes to one health clinic. We assume that each health facility has a catchment of 10 000 people, so one EWARS kit can cover half a million people, which is a significant emergency affected area or displacement camp.”

Once an EWARS box is on-site, the first job is to create an account and customize it for the specific emergency – language, locations, users, diseases to be monitored, data required, reporting frequency, etc.

The customized form is then automatically loaded onto the mobile phones that are given to local health workers, who can immediately begin collecting information. Data gatherers can also use their own Android phones by downloading the app from the Google Play Store. Completed forms are automatically sent back via mobile signal to the DataHub, which is kept at the nearest emergency operations centre.

For more information please visit WHO Africa.