Ushering in digital humanitarianism at the Médecins Sans Frontières Scientific Day 2012

There was a strong message of the new age of digital humanitarianism at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Scientific day 2012 (#MSFSD). Serving to highlight the innovative research being carried out by the international medical aid organization, the annual day held at the Royal Society of Medicine  showcased new technologies and effective policies used to support some of today’s most vulnerable people.

As eloquently voiced by the keynote speaker Paul Conneally, the humanitarian world is increasingly finding itself on ‘the cusp of a global health revolution’ mainly thanks to the proliferation of mobile technology. This new accessibility enables life-saving activities such as crisis mapping and disaster management on a whole new scale – giving rise to a new era of empowerment to local communities. The parallels to open access were striking as Paul compared the need for information to the need for food, water, medicine or shelter.

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Other speakers during the day brought to light the ways MSF were incorporating these new technologies to aid their operations. Chris Grundy’s talk on the use of satellite mapping to estimate population size illustrated the practical side of such innovations, the results of which are used to supply adequate numbers of vaccines. Research presented by Isabella Panunzi provided real world applications of increasing connectivity through the rise of digital technologies, as she discussed the use of teleradiography in rural Malawi. With the main diagnosis of tuberculosis in rural areas being presumptive and the possibility therefore of inadequate treatment of other disorders (as highlighted by Georgia Russell earlier in the day) the exchange of chest X-rays from Malawi to the US really did emphasize the realm of possibilities available during this era of technological advance.

There were also gentle reminders that established technology continues to save the lives of the sickest people; as Miroslav Stavel presented his team’s findings on the possibility of use of bubble nasal continuous positive airway pressure (nCPAP) as a low cost treatment that could increase the survival rate of premature babies in countries where advanced neonatal support is rare.

A fitting end to the day was provided by Jonathan Smith from Yale University who is currently heading the Visual Epidemiology Project which aims to connect an emotional component to epidemiological research. An inspirational clip of his film ‘They Go To Die’ documenting the disease of migrant gold minework­ers in South Africa and Swazi­land who have con­tracted drug-resistant TB and HIV while work­ing at the gold mine provided a different edge to his research; an edge which he hopes will lead to direct changes in global health policy.

The take home message from MSF Scientific Day was one of innovation – not only was the day itself different from their previous meetings with presentations being streamed online for the first time – but themes of new eras and novel methods of influencing change indicate an exciting future for the research of Médecins Sans Frontières.

Rosie Smith

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