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Is There Ebola on That Smartphone?

A family sit near the body of their mother suspected of dying from the Ebola virus, as the father, right, tries to contact family members on his mobile phone, in Monrovia, Liberia.

A family sit near the body of their mother suspected of dying from the Ebola virus, as the father, right, tries to contact family members on his mobile phone, in Monrovia, Liberia. // Abbas Dulleh/AP

Medical staff treating patients with Ebola and other communicable diseases in Africa face a novel kind of smartphone security problem.

When aiding Ebola patients, "What about the mobile device that you hand off to the next medical person?" said Rocky Young, a practicing physician assistant and director of cybersecurity, information assurance, outreach and mobile security for the Defense Department. "These devices have to be hardened. They have to be secured. Alcohol will damage them if you clean them."

He was speaking at a mobile industry summit in Washington on Wednesday.

Liberia is reportedly enforcing a quarantine in a large slum area to stop the spread of the deadly outbreak.

Both Africans and Americans are reliant on cellphones for text messaging, accessing health information and --increasingly, especially in Africa -- mobile payments. 

There is deep smartphone penetration in Africa, where land lines sometimes are nonexistent.

Almost 68 percent of cellphone owners in Kenya regularly use their device to make or receive payments, according to a February Pew Research Center report. Half of smartphone users in Uganda, 29 percent in South Africa and 24 percent in Senegal conduct mobile payments. In other emerging and developing countries, a median of only 8 percent can say the same.

But medical workers cannot handle their smartphones like ATMs. In clinics, U.S. military health professionals keep iPads sterile with Ziploc bags, in the same way a dentist protects scaler in a plastic pouch, DOD officials said in an interview.

While smartphone disinfectants exist, they are not convenient out in the field, officials said.

Military health personnel also must sanitize the data in their mobile device to protect patients' privacy. Medical records are opened and then cleared after patient visits, using a "common access card," DOD's standard smart card badge. 

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