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Ebola text-message system expanded in attempt to stem outbreak

Tera, a text-based system used to warn people in Sierra Leone about the Ebola outbreak, could be extended to seven other West African countries.

Trilogy Emergency Relief Application, or Tera, allows the Red Cross and Red Crescent charities to send SMS messages to all switched-on handsets within a specific area by drawing its shape on a computer generated map.

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The seven nations set to receive the system are Benin, Togo, Ghana, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and Burkina Faso, with the expansion set to be completed within nine months. To finalise the roll-out, the charities will need the cooperation of local mobile networks.

In an interview with the BBC, Robin Burton from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) claimed that Tera has an advantage over TV and radio in that it remains on the phone.

"It's been doing an excellent job in Sierra Leone, sending out in the region of 2 million messages per month, helping the communities there to prepare themselves, try to avoid getting infected, and then if they do, to know what to do about it," he said.

Tera was originally developed as a response to the Haiti earthquake disaster in 2010. It was also implemented during Sierra Leone's cholera outbreak in 2013 before being used to tackle the current Ebola epidemic, which has already resulted in the loss of more than 4,000 lives.

Some operators have expressed concerns that the system effectively ask them to spam millions of customers, but the IFRC has ensured that Tera is as "network friendly" as it can be.

Individual subscribers can opt out of receiving texts and only powered-up handsets are sent information, avoiding the build-up of undelivered messages, which could put networks under strain.

Mr Burton added that ultimately these concerns appear trivial when people's lives are on the line.

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"We only send the messages to the areas that are affected," he said. "If you get a message it is relevant to you, it's not just a piece of spam."