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AFRICA: Mobile phones for health

ACCRA/NAIROBI, 3 December 2010 (IRIN) - Some 80 health professionals and telecom operators are meeting in the Ghanaian capital Accra to explore ways to use mobile phones for better healthcare delivery.

“What we are trying to do here is to find out what mobile technology applications will help us fix some of Africa’s health problems,” said Fiemu Nwariaku, professor of surgery in Ghana and a moderator at the 2-3 December Mobile Health Africa Summit. The efforts are aimed particularly at improving healthcare for underserved populations.

An estimated 450 million people in Africa use mobile phones for everyday personal and business communications, but the technology is becoming increasingly useful for overburdened health workers struggling to reach large numbers of patients with few resources.

IRIN has compiled a list of ways in which mobile phones can be used to improve the continent's health:

• Health check-up by text message - In a pilot programme, community health workers in Kenya are using mobile phone text messages to check on people living with HIV as a substitute for home visits, which take more time and cost more, as many health workers use motorcycles to visit patients who can live many kilometres away from each other.

A recent study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, noted that Kenyan patients who received weekly text message check-ups were 12 percent more likely than a control group to have an undetectable level of HIV virus a year after starting life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) treatment.

In the south-central Ghanaian village of Bonsaaso, using mobile phones to contact health workers has lowered the maternal death rate. A pilot project in Cape Town, South Africa, used text messages to improve adherence to tuberculosis regimens.

• Health information - On Valentine's Day 2008, a Dutch NGO started an eight-week campaign in Uganda’s southwestern district of Mbarara with the slogan, "Don't guess the answers, learn the truth about HIV". The campaign led to a 100 percent increase in visits to the voluntary counselling and testing centre run by the NGO's health partner. This year, the same NGO used a text message quiz to test malaria knowledge in a fishing village in eastern Uganda.

In Ethiopia, people can call a confidential hotline anonymously with HIV-related queries. On a 24-hour toll-free medical hotline in the Republic of Congo, set up by the government, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and a mobile telephone network operator, health professionals respond to queries about paediatric emergencies.

• Monitoring distribution - Keeping track of medicines and other health supplies is extremely difficult in Africa, where systems - especially in rural areas - are often not fully computerized, but data on how many health centres have been equipped with how many doses of medicines, vaccines and so on can now be sent by mobile phone.

In Nigeria, UNICEF is using text messages to track the distribution of some 63 million mosquito nets. 

Civil society activists in several African countries came together in 2009 to run the "Stop Stock-outs” campaign, designed to track stock-outs of essential medicines like those for treating malaria and HIV in government-run health centres. Teams use text messages to report stock-outs of various drugs before presenting their findings to the national authorities.

• Research - The convenience and relatively low cost of mobile phone use has also contributed to medical research. A 2009 South African study found that mobile phones were a feasible method of data collection and recommended further exploration.

The government of Ghana is using mobile phones to collect data to assess whether the poor are benefiting from the country's National Health Insurance Scheme. In Uganda, personal digital assistants (PDAs) are being used to transmit disease surveillance data, among other things.

• The future - Researchers are looking into new and more efficient ways of harnessing this mobile phone technology to improve the continent's health.

A project led by the University of London is developing self-test devices that can immediately identify sexually transmitted infections. The kit will include a computer chip that can be plugged into a mobile phone or computer, and software on the phone would then analyse a urine or saliva sample placed on the chip and provide a diagnosis.

As more healthcare providers, governments and donors incorporate mobile phones into their health service delivery packages, the gadgets seem set to become an integral part of life in Africa.

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Theme (s): Health & Nutrition, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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