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International News
Africa Turns to Cellphones for Better Health

April 4, 2011

Some 10,000 patients at South Africa's largest HIV treatment center, Johannesburg's Themba Lethu clinic, have signed up for a text messaging service that discretely sends out appointment reminders. "See you at the clinic tomorrow," one txtAlert states. Clinic managers say missed appointments have declined from 15 percent in mid-2007 to just 4 percent today.

Many African countries lack landline infrastructure, but cellphone use is high: The continent boasts 624 million mobile phone subscribers.

"The continent carries a disproportionate share of the world's disease burden and some of the lowest per-capita doctor-to-patient ratios. Mobile phones are now being looked to as a tool to help overcome some of these entrenched global health challenges," said Adele Waugaman, who manages mHealth, a partnership between the UN Foundation and Vodafone.

"These tools solve problems specific to developing countries, such as a lack of specialists and specialized services in rural areas," added Richard Gakuba, coordinator of Rwanda's eHealth initiatives.

Rwanda employs the TRACnet program in 450 health centers. Developed by the U.S. firm Voxiva, TRACnet records HIV data, sends reminders for reports to be filed, monitors drug supplies, and delivers test results. The wait for HIV diagnosis in infants has been cut from four months to two weeks. TRACnet "is the only tool we have for tracking this data," said Christian Munyaburanga, an e-Health trainer.

txtAlert was developed by South Africa's Praekelt Foundation. Marcha Neethling said the program costs approximately 14 cents per patient per month. "There is no other technology that can reach people in such masses, she said. "For the bang for your buck -- the amount that you would spend to reach one person -- it is by far the cheapest technology."

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Excerpted from:
Agence France Presse

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