Hotline Proved Key in Curbing Covid Spread

Technology proved an effective tool to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Cambodia in the form of a hotline that is slated to be rolled out in other countries to prevent pandemics.
A mobile Internet user in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
A mobile Internet user in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

When the first imported case of Covid-19 in Cambodia was detected in Sihanoukville on 27 January 2020, the critical question was: is the country ready to cope with the pandemic?

Early that year, one of Cambodia’s simple shields to slow down the spread of the pandemic was the Ministry of Health’s Hotline-115. From screening testing requests from the public to partially automated contact tracing, a simple phone call, not a smartphone app, to 115, the hotline by the Communicable Disease Control Department (CDCD) of the Ministry of Health (MoH) handled it all.

“During a pandemic, public trust and public participation are crucial for the MoH to monitor and respond to the public health situation. Hotline-115 has proven to be a trusted channel for the public to get the latest official information or report,” said Lan Suy Channe, Co-Founder and CEO of technology social enterprise Kawsang, which was born out of non-profit InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia.

“Between January 2016 and March 2022, Hotline-115 received an average of 592 incoming public calls each day, peaking at over 18,000 incoming calls daily from the public,” according to data published this week by the Lancet Regional Health, an online health journal that publishes high-quality, evidence-based research.

The incoming call volume to the Hotline 115
The incoming call volume to the Hotline 115

The recent research “Cambodia national health hotline - Participatory surveillance for early detection and response to disease outbreaks” added, “And it sent out an average of 2,654 automated contact tracing calls per day between April 2020 and March 2022, 1.3 percent of respondents from the contact tracing calls met the Covid-19 symptoms.”

Launched in 2016, the health hotline “was further enhanced with new capabilities for handling Covid contact tracing in 2020.” It all began with the hotline system designed as an extension to the CamEwarn [Cambodia Early Warning], a case-based surveillance system that covers 10 epidemic prone diseases and syndromes. Largely used to collect basic data from the health centers across Cambodia, a H5N1 bird flu case was once reported through this 115 hotline in early-2017.

Channe, also one of the lead authors, wrote, “The Hotline 115 system played an important role in CCDC’s response and management of the Covid-19 pandemic, which potentially saved numerous human lives in Cambodia and mitigated the collapse of its fragile labour-intensive economy.”

Yet, the Kawsang CEO admitted, “While the new National Hotline-115 system represents a leap forward, some challenges still remain.”

She explained, in the published research, that the contact tracing process requires a manual step of exporting contact lists from the World Health Organization (WHO) Go.Data system and importing them to the Hotline-115 system. Further, the contact tracing results are not synchronised back to the Go.Data system.

Importantly, a tech solution is not sufficient if not fully deployed and widely adopted. To deploy Hotline 115 at the scale required for it to be impactful, it was essential for all stakeholders to be on board. CCDC provided the vision and the direction that enabled the necessary collaboration with other government agencies, WHO, development partners, and the telecommunication operators.

A June situation report by WHO stated, “Multisource surveillance indicates the epidemiological situation is stable in Cambodia. There have been no detected clusters, a decline in 115 calls related to Covid-19, decline in test positivity including through sentinel surveillance systems and no increase in hospitalisations.”

“Cambodia managed to keep Covid-19 cases relatively low in 2020, but the situation has worsened since February 2021. As of 5 October 2021, Cambodia had recorded 113,475 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 2,406 deaths,” said Asia Development Bank in its release last September. It approved $30 million in financing to help strengthen Cambodia’s health system amid a surge in new infections and sustained community transmission of Covid-19.

In today’s interview with Kiripost, Kawsang’s Channe said,

“National Hotline 115 in Cambodia demonstrates how simple and effective technologies can strengthen public participation in early disease detection and response in low-resource countries.”
She added, “Next, we are looking forward to collaborating with partners to implement a similar hotline in other similar countries.”

Co-authors of the research include Mark Smolinski, President of Ending Pandemics based in San Francisco, and Ly Sovann, CDCD director of MOH, among others.