Zambia: Government's SMS System for HIV Test Results

Zambia's Ministry of Health is piloting a project that sends newborn HIV test results back to community health centers via text messaging, shortening to three to five days a process that used to take up to 10 weeks and getting infected babies onto antiretroviral (ARV) treatment earlier.

The short messaging service (SMS) project began in January at select clinics in rural areas of Zambia's Copperbelt, Central and Northern provinces. Prior to the project's start, HIV testing of infants involved transporting collected blood samples from a clinic to a central regional hospital for analysis. The results were then sent back to the rural clinic. The lengthy process wasted valuable time during which an HIV-positive infant could have been placed on ARVs.

Under the enhanced program, blood samples are couriered to regional hospitals, where they are tested for HIV. The results are sent back to clinics via an SMS machine, printed out, and given to the relevant provider.

Victor Munkonka, director of public health in the ministry, noted that the delay in administering ARVs in children who are less than 18 months old was contributing to high infant death rates in Zambia. He is optimistic that the program, once implemented nationally, will help reduce the country's infant mortality rate by more than 50 percent.

Felistus Chipako of the Media Network on Child Rights and Development said the government's introduction of SMS as a way of addressing pediatric HIV is an encouraging development. Zambia's child mortality is among sub-Saharan Africa's highest, with 119 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008, she said.

"The system also calls for intensive counseling for mothers on how to handle the whole thing when given the results," Chipako added.