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Referrals using mobile phone help detect leprosy

Dr. Ernesto Villalon at 1st eHealth summit 2014

“A world without leprosy” is the vision behind the creation of LEARNS or Leprosy Alert Response Network and Surveillance, the first mobile phone-based leprosy referral system.

Leprosy is a skin and nerve disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae. Its early signs include pale or reddish skin patches and diminished sensation. Before treatment became available, leprosy patient suffered gradual progressive nerve damage, and became crippled and blind.

Although leprosy is a curable disease, the Philippines still has 11 leprosy endemic areas. Leprosy remains hidden and untreated in these areas because of stigma, as reported by Dr. Ernesto S. Villalon of the National Leprosy Control Program during the 1st eHealth Summit.

As explained by Dr. Villalon, the LEARNS is valuable in identifying new leprosy case, particularly in areas where access to health care is restricted by poor communications and geographic isolation. By using the LEARNS-equipped mobile phone, health workers may refer suspected cases of leprosy by sending pictures of skin patch and other skin descriptions to leprosy expert or health care provider. Once the expert diagnosed it as leprosy, a medication plan will be given to patients.

Aside from diagnosis, LEARNS also helps in leprosy surveillance by generating reports and maps of hyperendemic areas. Today, LEARNS is being pilot-tested in Region 6.

This initiative of the Department of Health is in partnership with the Novartis Healthcare Philippines and Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development.