HIV :: Mobile phones to fight HIV AIDS pandemic

Leading players in the mobile phone industry and the U.S. Government have joined forces to fight HIV/AIDS and other health challenges in 10 African countries.

Phones for Health is a cutting-edge US$10 million public-private partnership, which brings together mobile phone operators, handset manufacturers and technology companies – working in close collaboration with Ministries of Health, global health organizations, and other partners – to use the widespread and increasing mobile phone coverage in the developing world to strengthen health systems.

“The explosive spread of mobile phone networks across the developing world has created a unique opportunity to significantly transform how countries can tackle global health challenges,” said Dr. Howard Zucker, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), representing the WHO at the Partnership’s launch at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona.

The Phones for Health partners – the GSM Association’s Development Fund, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Accenture Development Partnerships, Motorola, MTN and Voxiva – are initially focused on 10 African countries, building on an already successful deployment in Rwanda. The partnership is also likely to be extended further in Africa and Asia to address tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases.

Phones for Health will allow health workers in the field to use a standard Motorola handset equipped with a downloadable application to enter health data. Once entered, the data is transferred via a packet based mobile connection (GPRS) into a central database. If GPRS isn’t available, the software can use a SMS data channel to transmit the information. The data is then mapped and analyzed by the system, and is immediately available to health authorities at multiple levels via the web. The system also supports SMS alerting and other tools for communication with field staff.

“Rapid and accurate communications channels are crucial to tackling the many health problems faced by African countries and other parts of the developing world,” said Rob Conway, Chief Executive of the GSM Association. “The roll out of this health management software in Africa will clearly demonstrate how governments can exploit the expanding mobile infrastructure to enhance the well-being of their citizens.”

“People living with HIV in the developing world deserve high-quality treatment and care, and this innovative partnership will ensure that health workers and program managers get the timely, relevant information they need — even when they serve patients in the most remote areas,” said Ambassador Mark Dybul, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator.

In many African countries, fixed-line Internet connections are rare and paper forms are still the primary way of recording the spread of disease. But more than 60% of the population now lives in areas with mobile phone coverage and the GSMA expects that figure to rise to 85% by 2010. This makes it feasible to use mobile phones to relay this information directly into health authorities’ computer systems, allowing rapid interventions such as distribution of medication and education programmes for those at risk. MTN, which operates in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East, is the first operator partner in this programme and will support the roll out of handsets and the underlying data service.

“Health workers will also be able to use the system to order medicine, send alerts, download treatment guidelines, training materials and access other appropriate information,” said Paul Meyer, Chairman of Voxiva, the company that has designed the software. “Managers at the regional and national level can access information in real-time via a web based database.”

The Phones for Health alliance builds on the partners’ successful experience in Rwanda deploying a system built by Voxiva called TRACnet. Working in close co-operation with the Government of Rwanda and PEPFAR, the system has been used for the last 2 years to manage that country’s national HIV/AIDS programme. “This technology is revolutionizing how data is captured in the field,” said Dr. Louis Munyakaze, Director General of Rwanda’s National Institute of Statistics.

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