Cultural Change – SMS Based Health Services and Charity

Chandigarh:Last weak Nelson Mandelas charitable organizations launched a global text message fundraising campaign to mark his 90th birthday. The former South African presidents HIV and AIDS charity, 46664 , has set up a premium SMS service in more than 20 countries, allowing people to text happy birthday messages to Mandela. Each sender receives a thank you text in return and a unique PIN, giving them access to thanks by a specially lunched fundraising campaign.

According to the Paper of the Institute of Audiovisual & Telecoms in Europe, " Mobile 2008: Market and Trends" published for the Mobile World Congress 2008, Barcelona: Half of the world population owns a mobile phone. Report says there were 3.18 billion mobile subscribers worldwide at the end of 2007. In 2006 and 2007, developing countries accounted for 90% of the new subscriptions worldwide. Although 70% of mobile subscribers live in developing countries where the mean penetration rate of mobile telephony rose from 13.8% in 2003 to 41.6% in 2007, Its impact on the economic and social structure is tremendous, especially in developing countries where it reduces information disparities between towns and rural areas, and improves interconnection among the people.   Surprisingly HIV and AIDS programmes have failed to make use of it. Now however, a Dutch NGO wants to have this changed.

Despite prevention campaigns, too many young people still die of AIDS every year, putting the economy and the social stability of certain developing countries at risk. Young people being quicker to adopt new technologies are naturally targeted in priority by mobile phone operators. Now a Non-Profit organization located in Amsterdam, Netherlands has embarked on a project to link technology and HIV and AIDS to improve HIV/AIDS education, especially in sub-Saharan countries.

When we realized that knowledge about HIV/AIDS was poor among young Africans, while cell phones are increasingly becoming popular, we at Text to Change (TTC) initiated to use text messages to improve awareness about HIV/AIDS, and motivate people to get tested and seek treatment. Even people with the basic mobile phones will be able to participate in the program.

According to Text to Change managers, the organization aims at creating a dialogue in order to increase awareness on the disease and achieve comprehensive knowledge levels among young people, reduce HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination and motivate people for HIV testing and treatment. The NGO designed a pilot project for implementation early this year in Uganda and their idea is simple, innovative, easy to apply, and cost-effective”, they say.   The program consists in sending cell phone text messages in a rewarding quiz format to improve the knowledge that people have on HIV/AIDS, and encourage them to go for Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT), and seek treatment if necessary.

The program is built as an interactive educational game and each week over a period of 6 weeks, mobile phone users receive 3 multiple choice questions from the local mobile operator focusing on HIV prevention (general knowledge, condom use, STIs, behavioral change, mother to child transmission), Stigma and discrimination and Practical information on proximity VCT and treatment centers. The users answer these questions by SMS, in full anonymity and respondents with correct answers receive a message notifying them of their participation in a weekly contest that rewards selected winners with prizes such as free mobile airtime or Nokia handsets. Those with incorrect answers get a rectifying SMS with an explanation of the specific subject, sent from TTC database.

The dialogue established between the phone user and TTC will build trust in this educational system, while upgrading the knowledge of the respondent on HIV/AIDS to the extent that he/she might one day become the "counselor" of someone else in need of accurate information on the subject. During the six week quiz, every participant can get a free HIV test to know his/her status and get the appropriate treatment on time, when necessary. Hoefman says cell phones have not been just about technology. “They have brought about a cultural change in the developing countries.

The seriousness and reliability of the quiz answers, relayed in a manner will probably have a greater impact on youth, already addicted to video games and SMS contests and most TV programs now come with an SMS contest, turning participants into active protagonists of the show. Their voice is part of the solution and they are aware of it.   Their empowerment has been immediate and non reversible. Fun and incentive-based education could be the missing ingredient in previous AIDS awareness, sexual education and behavioral change campaigns?” he poses.

For the time being, TTC is focusing on the primary results of its pilot program rolled out in Mbarara District, South Western Uganda. They launched it on February 14, 2008, with their partners, the AIDS Information Centre-Uganda (AIC), a local NGO of great renown specialized in VCT, reproductive health, discordant couple and youth services, which covers over 49 districts of Uganda and 104 Government Health facilities and the innovation has now attracted the interest of the Celtel Uganda, one of the leading mobile phone operators in Africa currently operating in 15 countries and plans are afoot to move it to the countrys capital city of Kampala.

Dr. Avnish Jolly, for The India Post

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