LEARNS: Detects leprosy through phone-based referral system

Seven years after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a leprosy free vision, the Philippines successfully eliminated leprosy at the national level. This means the prevalence was reduced to less than one case per 10,000 people. However, recent report by the Department of Health (DOH) revealed pockets of cases in the country account to about 1,500 leprosy cases identified mostly from poor communities each year. In the Western Pacific Region, the Philippines has the highest number of new cases detected. This is an indication that transmission is still ongoing and new strategies are needed to eliminate and interrupt the transmission of the disease.

One of the innovative technology developed to address this challenge is the Leprosy Alert and Response Network System (LEARNS), the country’s first mobile phone-based leprosy teleconsultation system. LEARNS is a product of partnership between the DOH-Novartis Task Force and Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD). The concept of developing such technology came from the local tech company MetaHelix (“Mobile Teledermatology E-Referral System for Active Case Finding of New Leprosy Case”) whose entry was awarded the best entry in the Innovative Ideas category during the “Best Practices and Innovative Ideas in the Fight against Leprosy Contest” in 2013.

LEARNS is a mobile health (mHealth) tool that enables health care practitioners in remote areas to refer suspected leprosy patients to experts by sending a picture of the skin lesion and patient details through their mobile phone via either SMS or the LEARNS application. LEARNS promotes early case finding and helps reduce delays in diagnosis and treatment. Aside from case finding, LEARNS also provides data for disease surveillance, reaction and treatment outcome monitoring, message broadcasting, patient education, and report generation.

After its successful pilot in Iloilo province in 2014, LEARNS is now being implemented in 29 provinces in 9 regions, with over 6,000 trained healthcare providers. The DOH plans to expand LEARNS in other provinces including Sulu Province in Autonomous Regions for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). LEARNS is now part of the DOH national leprosy management guidelines.

Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae that is transmitted via nasal secretions or droplets during close and frequent contact with an untreated person, but is not highly infectious. According to WHO, the disease multiplies very slowly with an incubation period of about 5 years but symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear. It may cause progressive and permanent damage to the eyes, limbs, nerves, and skin if left untreated.

As a national coordinating body for health research, the Council is committed into providing assistance to more studies such as this to help realize a healthier community for every Filipino.

For more information on PCHRD Programs, visit http://www.pchrd.dost.gov.ph/index.php/programs-and-services