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Health Business: Mobile Apps Tackle HIV/AIDS in Africa

Communication has historically been the biggest obstacle for public health organizations working in developing countries. Even outreach efforts that utilized multiple mediums—radio, television, print—were essentially a one-way dialogue reaching a narrow audience. At-risk groups with specific questions and concerns had few resources they could consult for answers. As a result, disinformation, especially in poorer nations, can run rampant.

But greater Internet access across the globe and the expanding use of mobile phones has provided public health officials a real outreach opportunity, particularly to young people. Nowhere are the possibilities greater than in Africa, where mobile phone use has exploded over the past decade. A recent report from the GSM Association (GSMA), a consortium of global mobile phone operators, suggests that mobile penetration in Africa reaches more than 600 million subscribers, making it  the second largest mobile market on the planet.

Challenges and Opportunities

Nowhere is the challenge more present. Sixty-nine percent of all people living with HIV reside in Africa. The HIV/AIDS crisis on the continent represents the largest public health issue in the modern era. To reach Africa’s underserved populations, health organizations are turning to what they call “mobile health” to communicate with HIV-positive individuals and members of at-risk groups. So-called “mHealth” mobile apps can help patients manage their treatments when health worker visits are costly, unavailable, or difficult to obtain regularly.

Across the continent, Mhealth apps are providing critical education and services:

  • WelTel provides SMS-based messaging to monitor and support antiretroviral (ARV) therapy in Kenya. WelTel‘s SMS communications are estimated to have raised ARV patients‘  adherence to their treatment regimens, which lowered total health system costs.
  • In Rwanda, TRACnet—a system designed to collect, store, and disseminate critical drug and patient information—has helped the government and health organizations in the country combat the HIV/AIDS crisis and greatly enhance education, relief efforts and the quality of patient care. Healthcare workers were able to expand their outreach network by 54,000 people in only three years. Additional organizations, including Cell-Life in South Africa, have used similar tactics in other corners of the continent.
  • The South Africa-based Praekelt Foundation has become a leading mobile technology developer for tools and services relating to healthcare. By working with governments, NGOs and other civil society actors, Praekelt Foundation has been able to reach over 50 million people across 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Social Media and Public Health

Recent studies suggest that when Africans go online—predominantly via mobile phones—they spend a preponderance of their time on social media platforms. Social media is particularly effective in facilitating peer-to-peer education and discussions about HIV and creating social movements calling for action.

“The potential of social media and mobile technologies to re-energize the AIDS movement is clear,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé recently announced. “We need nothing less than an HIV prevention revolution, with social media and mobile technology at its core.”

UNAIDS recently launched CrowdOutAIDS, an online collaborative project to “crowdsource” its new strategy to educate young people around the world about HIV/AIDS. To help accomplish this goal, CrowdOutAIDS hosted eight forums on social networking sites including Facebook and Renren that drew over 3,500 participants allowing them to share their experiences and perspectives. Other tools, like an online question-and-answer application, and Google Docs, enabled the organization to draft its proposal in the cloud.

Social media and mobile technology have been a hot topic at this year’s 19th annual International AIDS Conference which is currently taking place in Washington DC. A panel on Sunday discussed “Innovations in the Monitoring and Evaluation of Global Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission,” and outlined the successes and hurdles faced by relief groups that use cell phones to monitor the HIV/AIDS epidemic in five countries.

The conference will continue through the week. Many presentations are available by webcast from the conference website, and The Washington Post is also providing live coverage.

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