Africa turns to cellphones for better health

The text message arrives with life-saving discretion: a neutral "see you at the clinic tomorrow" to remind patients to pick up a fresh batch of anti-AIDS drugs.

The free texts from South Africa's largest HIV treatment site are part of a push in Africa to boost health by targeting the continent's 624 million mobile phone subscribers.

"I check my cellphone all the time - I think that's why it [the drug regimen] is working so well," said patient Emily Moletsane, 40, in a queue at Johannesburg's Themba Lethu clinic which averages more than 450 people a day.

About 10,000 people have opted for the txtAlert reminders, which have proven a stunning success. Missed appointments at the centre from 15 percent fell from in mid-2007 to just four percent today.

"When I started seeing this, I was also impressed," said medical manager Thapelo Maotoe.

Africa is poor in landlines and hospital beds but rich in cellphones, which is why mobile health - mHealth - offers opportunities for providing care at a low cost, say experts.

In west Africa, 2,200 doctors in Ghana and all of Liberia's 143 doctors have signed on to anti-poverty group Africa Aid's MDNet network, allowing then to call or text other physicians for free. In Ghana, a national directory helps find the number to call.

Ghanian paediatrician Frank Serebour recently used the system to find a specialist in the capital Accra for emergency surgery on a newborn baby who had been brought to his hospital in Kumasi, 270 kilometres (170 miles) away.

"All I did was pick up the directory, found the relevant specialist, arrangements were made and when the ambulance arrived they were waiting for the patient," he said.

More than 2.5 million calls have been made so far on the network, which partners with major mobile operators.

"I wish it could be duplicated in every African country. If only they could hook up every single health worker - nurse, midwife - onto the system," said Serebour.

With the value of the mHealth sector estimated at up to 60 billion dollars, mHealth companies are on the rise, said Adele Waugaman, who manages a partnership between the UN Foundation and Vodafone.

"The opportunities for mHealth in Africa are nearly limitless. The continent carries a disproportionate share of the world's disease burden, and some of the lowest per capita doctor to patient ratios," she said.

"Mobile phones are now being looked to as a tool to help overcome some of these entrenched global health challenges."

Seventeen years after being torn apart by genocide, Rwanda is trailblazing the use of technology to overcome challenges in a country with one doctor for every 18,000 people.

"These tools solve problems specific to developing countries, such as a lack of specialists and specialized services in rural areas that are only be available in urban areas," Rwanda's eHealth coordinator, Richard Gakuba, told AFP.

"Investment is still needed because this technology does not come cheaply and we still face infrastructure challenges."

One project is TRACnet, developed by American firm Voxiva, which tracks HIV data but also sends reminders for reports to be filed, monitors drug stocks and delivers test results.

Diagnosis of HIV in babies has been slashed from four months to two weeks.

TRACnet, used in 450 Rwandan health centres, "is the only tool we have for tracking this data," said Christian Munyaburanga, an e-Health trainer.

"Most of these centres do not have Internet connections and many do not have electricity."

The explosion of phones in Africa is being used for applications from quizzes promoting good behaviour in Uganda to coordinating health workers in Senegal.

But scaling up these projects remains a challenge and many governments don't have eHealth policies yet.

Marcha Neethling of the Praekelt Foundation in South Africa, which developed txtAlert, says it costs roughly 14 US cents per patient per month to receive the reminders.

"There is no other technology that can reach people in such masses. For the bang for your buck - the amount that you would spend to reach one person - it is by far the cheapest technology," she said.

"It's so obvious to us that it's making a massive impact."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Marketing Manager

    £36000 - £38000 per annum: Charter Selection: Charter Selection are working wi...

    Accounts Assistant, Hammersmith

    £25000 per annum: Charter Selection: Exciting sports company with a strong bra...

    Financial Accountant-IFRS-Gloucester-£300/day

    £250 - £295 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountant - IFRS - Glouc...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil