Pop!Tech: Cellphones Used to Fight AIDS in South Africa

Is the cellphone the most promising new weapon in the fight against HIV/AIDs? A group of designers, tech companies, health care providers and AIDs activists are betting that mobile phones can help crack this intractable problem: delivering health care information to one of the world's most severely affected regions.

Is the cellphone the most promising new weapon in the fight against HIV/AIDs? A group of designers, tech companies, health care providers and AIDs activists are betting that mobile phones can help crack one of the world's most intractable problems: delivering health care information to one of the world's most severely affected regions.

Project Masiluleke, (which means to ‘give wise counsel’ in Zulu) the largest ever use of mobile devices for delivery of HIV/AIDS and TB care,  was today unveiled at Pop!Tech, the annual in-gathering of digerati, activists, Arctic explorers, organic farmers, and the occasional perfume critic, in Camden, Maine.

Noting that several of the principals in the Project had discovered each other at last year’s conference, Andrew Zolli, Pop!Tech's curator, said the organization, through its Pop!Tech Accelerator activist arm,  was instrumental  in providing the “glue” that enabled practitioners to collaborate in such ventures. The  partners include frog design, the Praekelt Foundaton, iTeach, National Geographic, Nokia Siemens Networks, MTN, and others who together have invested several million dollars of in-kind value to establish the cell phone as a bridge to treatment.

Project M, as its backers have come to call it, is currently in its first month of operation. Its genius is to use specialized text messages piggybacked onto the unused space in “Please Call Me” messages, which many South Africans use when they run out of paid-up minutes on their cellphones.  Essentially, a caller sends a “Please Call Me” message to the person they wish to speak to — and then hangs up. That person gets the message, and calls that person back. Using the free space available in those messages, powered by technology from the Praekelt Foundation, with message content from iTeach, design insights from frog design, and network capacity donated by MTN, the messages can connect mobile users to operators at call centers who can provide callers with healthcare information, counseling and referrals to local testing clinics.

Each day in South Africa more than 1000 people die of AIDS. Some 40% of the population of 48 milllion is infected.  Despite the availability of disease fighting medication, those infected often fail to get the information they need to help themselves. In addition, the stigma of AIDS means that a vast number of infected people fail to get tested until it’s too late. “Men only come when they have lost their dignity,” says AIDS activist Zinny Thabethe, who spurred interest in this cause when she sang and spoke at Pop!Tech two years ago.

In its first month of operation, Project M is delivering one million messages a day, such as “HIV and being mistreated by family or friends? For confidential counseling, call AIDS helpline at this number.” Already, calls to the centers have jumped from 1,000 per day at launch, to 4,000 per day.

Ultimately, the goal is to expand the model across Africa.

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