Fighting HIV/AIDS by phone

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



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



The Phones for Health partners – the GSM Association’s Development Fund, the US 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 is not available, the software can use a SMS data channel to transmit the information. The data is then mapped and analysed 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.



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 per cent of the population now lives in areas with mobile phone coverage and the GSMA expects that figure to rise to 85 per cent 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.



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 two years to manage that country’s national HIV/AIDS programme.