Fighting polio, one SMS at a time!

At 25,747 alerts and counting, the AVADAR app is a pivotal tool in the disease surveillance arsenal.

A WHO team trains community volunteers and health workers on the user of AVADAR in Gurai, South Sudan. ©WHO/AFRO
A WHO team trains community volunteers and health workers on the user of AVADAR in Gurai, South Sudan. ©WHO/AFRO

Health workers and community volunteers in remote and security-compromised areas across ten African countries now rely on an SMS-based application to ferret out any possible poliovirus hiding in their midst.

The application is called AVADAR, short for “auto-visual AFP detection and reporting”, with AFP referring to acute flaccid paralysis, which is the main visible clinical symptom of poliomyelitis. AVADAR is an SMS-based mobile application used for reporting, monitoring and surveillance of poliovirus. It was developed in 2016 by the World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Swiss software company Novel-T, to ensure that every case of wild poliovirus is detected.

On a weekly basis, the health workers and volunteers in selected hard-to-reach districts use the AVADAR application to report whether they have noticed any child with paralysis of a limb. The districts are selected based on being deemed high risk yet having the sufficient telecommunications infrastructure that allows the health workers and community volunteers to communicate with the investigations team.

“In the last mile of polio eradication, we are not sparing any resources to reach a polio-free world. That is why we developed the AVADAR app,” says Dr Pascal Mkanda, WHO Regional Coordinator of the Polio Eradication Programme for Africa.

In the WHO African Region, no outbreaks of wild poliovirus have been detected since 2016, when the last case was found in Nigeria’s Borno State. This brings the region closer towards being certified free of wild poliovirus in 2020.

Health workers and community volunteers use AVADAR to recognize and report cases of acute flaccid paralysis, which is the sudden onset of paralysis or weakness in any part of the body that can be caused by polio, among children younger than 15 years. Acute flaccid paralysis could be caused by other diseases than poliomyelitis.

“Polio eradication requires that the surveillance system is sensitive enough to detect all acute flaccid paralysis cases -regardless of the disease behind it- and that such cases are promptly reported and investigated by disease surveillance personnel. This system starts at the community level,” Dr Mkanda adds.

WHO team training community volunteers and health workers on the use of AVADAR in Cameroon. ©WHO/AFRO
WHO team training community volunteers and health workers on the use of AVADAR in Cameroon. ©WHO/AFRO

Health workers and community volunteers first received training in workshops on how to use AVADAR and then they were each handed a smartphone with the application installed. On a weekly basis, the app sends them video reminders illustrating acute flaccid paralysis cases. The app then asks: “Have you seen a child with weakness of the legs or arms that you have not previously reported?” They then select between yes or no. If yes, the health workers and community volunteers input extra information about the case, such as the child’s name, date of onset of symptoms and geographic information.

Once the health worker presses the “send” button, a text message is sent to a system that triggers the sending of an SMS to the government and a WHO team that will investigate the case.

“In the AVADAR training workshops, we realized that some health workers and the majority of volunteers do not know the implications of acute flaccid paralysis and are unable to accurately identify such cases within their communities. The weekly AVADAR reminder videos helped improve that significantly,” says Dr Godwin Akpan, WHO Regional Polio Data Manager for Africa.

Dr Godwin is part of the team behind the innovation of the AVADAR application and trains health workers and community members on its use.

AVADAR was first piloted in Nigeria in 2016 and has been rolled out since 2017 in 99 districts of ten African countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.

As of October 2019, AVADAR has detected 1019 confirmed acute flaccid paralysis cases after health workers and community volunteers sent out 25,747 alerts through the application. None of those cases were polio cases. This marks a significant enhancement to the existing surveillance system that faces difficulties in remote and high-risk areas.

“Innovation and new technologies are our hope to finally make the feat of eradicating polio a reality. Thanks to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, today, we are closer than ever to eradicating polio,” concludes Dr Mkanda.

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