Dengue Fever is not a fun disease to catch. It probably won’t kill you (unless you contract the hemorrhagic variety, in which case you’re in real big trouble), but you’ll be flat on your back for a week or more with a monstrous headache and pain in your muscles and joints bad enough to earn the disease the endearing nickname “breakbone fever.” It’s a mosquito-borne virus, but unlike the malarial mosquitoes that bite in the evening, dengue-infected mosquitoes attack during the day, so no bed net or air con will save you. Once you’ve got it, the best that doctors can do is to give you some Tylenol and put a wet towel on your head.
The United States military takes an active interest in finding better treatment for dengue. In fact, according to their “Infectious Diseases Investment Decision Evaluation Algorithm” (the inevitable military acronym is ID-IDEAL, oddly), dengue ranks third on their list of problem diseases. The top nine, because I know you’re wondering:
- Bacteria-caused diarrhea
- Dengue fever
- Rift Valley fever
- Chikungunya fever
- Meningococcal meningitis
Today, U.S. forces and families in Vietnam, Haiti and Somalia do regular battle with dengue. But it’s hardly a new problem– way back in the summer of 1944, it turns out, my grandfather spent a week on a cot in a tent on the island of Saipan with a score of other Marines suffering from Dengue. So, needless to say, a Dengue vaccine would be a boon not just for the three billion people who live in risk areas, but also for our armed services.
Sanofi Pasteur, the French pharmaceutical company, was pleased to let the world know last November that they were sending a trial vaccine for dengue fever to a phase 3 (that’s the last phase) clinical study, testing industrially-produced doses in field trials in Latin America and Southeast Asia. (In the first two phases, the candidate vaccine was successfully evaluated in the U.S., as well as endemic regions.) And the U.S. Army, specifically the Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC), more specifically the Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) will be helping administer (pdf) the trial in several locations.
As part of their contribution, TATRC have hired Dimagi to build a system that will use text messages to help keep the clinics running the trial in touch with the people enrolled in the trial. Appointment reminders, health tips, and general encouragements to watch for fever symptoms and not to drop out (typically, about 20% of people enrolled in vaccine trials drop out), will be automatically delivered on a mass scale to the people who receive the trial vaccine. And that’s where I come in. More on this later.