During a global viral pandemic, there is no question that the quickest and most effective way to inform the public is by using mobile phones. It has the ability not only to save peoples lives but also to combat the virus being spread by providing real time alerts and information.

Initiatives such as Project Masiluleke shows that a simple SMS message to millions of people can raise awareness to levels that TV and radio cannot. Eventually this leads to prevention.

The clever guys Harvard Medical School hope to achieve the same thing with their new iPhone App,  Swine Flu Center. It features everything you need to educate yourself about swine flu including video guides, symptom checks, hotlines to call in case of an emergency (based on your location) and a ‘Health Map’ showing the state of the epidemic in your area. All this for $1.99.

Now I’m all for using the iPhone’s rich media capabilities to help people become more aware but shouldn’t this really be a government initiative and have the price point of $zero? By charging $1.99 I think it acts as a barrier to the type of people who really need this app. If they haven’t already made the effort to find out about swine flu, either by listening to the news or looking online for free, what makes Harvard think they are going to bother forking out $1.99? If this app is truly for the lazy, I doubt they will pay for it. However hypochondriacs can rejoice!

It’s clear to me that governments need a mobile strategy to deal with things like this. It’s not unreasonable to contact citizens via SMS when a country declares a national emergency like the USA did last week.

Although the iPhone is still only a small percentage of the handset market it should be a integral part of informing the public, with SMS and WAP being the primary forms of communication.