Mobile tech on the Africa health frontier
September 14, 2014
Billions have been spent to bring AIDS medicines to patients in Africa, but a technology with just as much lifesaving potential can be had for pennies: the text message.
As African leaders gather for a summit with President Barack Obama this week, U.S. health agencies are beginning to invest in programs to help expand mobile health technology, which has the potential to dramatically improve life for millions in sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region. Simple mobile telephone text messages can be used to help keep AIDS medication stocked at a remote clinic, or to summon an ambulance in time to save a baby’s life.
In the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has freely distributed a mobile app version of software that transmits diagrams that help field workers visualize the outbreak and its spread. It also has automated tools that let health workers speed up data analysis and help track the contacts of people who have fallen ill.
But mobile health was making steady headway in Africa before the Ebola outbreak, including with the decades-long fight against AIDS.
In June, National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center announced a $1.6 million eCapacity training program to build health IT knowledge in developing nations. By September, the center expects to announce separate grants it is awarding for mobile health interventions with five other NIH centers and institutes.
Sub-Saharan African nations have leapfrogged into cellphone use over the past two decades. In countries like Kenya, where only about 1 percent of the population had land lines, more than 90 percent now access to their own mobile device, or at least one owned by a relative or a village elder.
“In Uganda, there are now more households that own mobile phones than have a latrine,” says Sean Blaschke, a UNICEF official.
Such technology could be crucial in countries where a bus ride to the clinic costs a month’s wages and 40 percent of the people diagnosed with HIV never get follow-up treatment even though it is often free.
Texts and mobile phone conversations allow doctors to tell patients in distant villages that a test for AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria test was positive and they need to come in. Or they can say that a test was negative, sparing the patient the need to spend hard-earned cash or lose a job because of the long trip to town.
In Uganda, texts sent through a phone-based system called mTrac keep isolated AIDS and vaccine clinics stocked with drugs. In the past, they often ran out for weeks. Uganda’s nationwide program has funding from USAID, the CDC and British aid agencies, but is moving toward self-sufficiency. UNICEF is launching software based on mTrac for use in other countries. It is about to be tried in Afghanistan and Somalia.