World Aids Day and the Role of Mobile Phones in Combatting HIV/AIDS: Project M

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Dec 01, 2008

Today is World Aids Day, a day where individuals and organisations from around the world come together to bring attention to the global AIDS epidemic.

Mobile phones are increasinly playing a key role in combatting HIV/AIDS, providing public education and information services, patient monitoring and support, data collection, emergency medical services, and even educational games. 

We have written much on this topic, of immense importance to the world where there are now more than 33 million people living with the disease, making it one of the most destructive epidemics in recorded history.  Throughout the day, we'll feature a few projects that use or have used mobile technology in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment that stand out.

Project M, announced to much fanfare this fall, is going to be the largest social marketing experiment using USSD call-back messages in South Africa. Call-back messages are a uniquely African phenomenon that is well suited for social marketing. 

South Africa has more HIV positive citizens than any country in the world, with infection rates estimated to be close to 17% of the country.  In some provinces, more than 40% of the population is infected. Testing and treatment numbers are abysmal: Only 2% of South Africans have ever been tested for HIV, and of those who are HIV positive, a mere 10% are receiving anti-retroviral therapy, leaving 90% untreated, infectious and likely to die. There is still wide-spread misinformation about how the disease is contracted and the country's overburdened healthcare system is unable to provide adequate care to patients. Many people only enter the healthcare system with end-stage HIV or full blown AIDS.

Project M, a coalition of organizations and companies, seeks to address this problem with a number of different approaches.  The first stage of the project is built around the use of USSD call-back messages, delivering approximately 1 million HIV/AIDS and TB messages each day, for one year, to the general public. These messages are broadcast in the unused space of “Please Call Me” (PCM) text messages – a free service that is widely used in South Africa and across the continent. The Praekelt Foundation, a pioneers in using call-back messages for social marketing which they have dubbed SocialTxt, negotiated a million free messages with MTN to connect mobile users to existing HIV and TB call centers. Trained operators provide callers with accurate healthcare information, counseling and referrals to local testing clinics.

According to the Praekelt Foundation and PopTech, one of the organizations in the mix, testing of providing AIDS testing hotlines via call-back messages helped triple average daily call volume to the National AIDS Helpline in Johannesburg.

Praekelt also maintains another service, TxtAlert, that helps HIV/AIDS patients who are receiving treatments connected with their care prividers.  Keeping patients on live-saving retroviral drugs is a huge issue that TxtAlert tries to address.  Only 10% of South Africans with AIDS are currently receiving anti-retroviral drugs, and of those who begin treatment, more than 40% do not remain on the medications past two years. TxtAlert uses text messaging to remind patients of scheduled clinic visits, and allowing patients to reschedule their appointments if they are unable to come to the clinic on the designated day.  There is increasing evidence that information/communication technologies, and cell phones, in particular, are effective in reducing drop-out rates for patients.  

in addition to scaling up these existing projects that Praekelt has tested already extensively, Project M has more ambitious plans for the second half of 2009.  The Project seeks to implement “virtual call centers,” where existing helplines will be staffed up by teams of trained HIV+ patients to field questions remotely, via their mobile phones, from the general public.  These lay-counselors are extremely knowledgeable about the illness, diligent about their treatment regimens, and familiar with the stigma and despair that a HIV+ diagnosis can cause. Prokect M hopes that these virtual call centers generate hundreds of new jobs and increase the capacity of South Africa’s health system.

Finally, Project M intends to launch at-home HIV testing services, surely the most controversial part of the project. In their reasoning, South Africa demands a radical solution to truly reverse its HIV/AIDS and TB crises. For this third phase of Project M is exploring a breakthrough distributed diagnostics model: low cost, at-home HIV testing with mobile counseling support. Analogous to a pregnancy test, these distributed diagnostics would provide a free, private and reliable way for anyone to take the critical first step of knowing his or her status, with high-quality information provided via mobile device.  There will surely bemuch discussion about this approach, not avored by a lot of health workers. 

However, in a country that was recently found to have caused the death of more than 335,000 people because of its failed, delayed, and irresponsible HIV/AIDS policies, surely drastic and new approaches are much called for - especially those that have shown to have an impact.

You can see an interview with the co-founder of Praekelt in the video below.

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