• 09.27.12

AIDS Test Results Via Text Message Can Save Children’s Lives

To save an infant infected with HIV from its mother, you need to start administering drugs right away. But first you need to know if the infant has the virus, which can take weeks in rural Africa. A new service cuts that time down drastically, letting rural doctors begin treatment quickly.

Getting test results to doctors in a timely manner is difficult here in America, so imagine how hard it is given the logistical problems and long travel distances in developing countries. Project Mwana is a pilot project that takes on that challenge in southern Zambia, empowering mothers and infants to improve their health through mobile phone medical results.


In Zambia, the estimated prevalence of HIV infection is 14%, and mother-to-child transmission accounts for 21% of all HIV infections. Anti-retroviral medications work to treat babies with HIV, but first the mothers must know if their babies are infected, and treatment is most effective when it’s administered early. But there are some challenges in getting that information back to the people who can use it.

HIV testing is essential to achieving an AIDS-free generation–and to keeping children alive if they contract the virus during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. According to UNICEF, about half of all babies living with HIV will die by their second birthday unless they receive antiretroviral treatment.

Project Mwana solves this problem by using mobile phone messages (SMS) to transmit test results fast. The project says that an infant’s HIV status took 66 days to go from blood sample to information back to the caregiver in the rural area in 2009. In 2011, that time was just 29 days. On average, the results made it back to the clinic 57% faster than the traditional method, using snail mail.

Phones are making a difference in HIV prevention and treatment across the world.
According to the researchers, in southern India nearly 75% of survey respondents stated that weekly automated voice reminders to patients’ mobile phones for maintaining medication adherence would work.

In the system designed by Project Mwana, which is led by the Zambian Ministry of Health and implemented by UNICEF, four text messages are sent back and forth. A specialized PIN is required to access the results, which use only numbers to identify the patients. The clinic worker records the results in a paper ledger and deletes the message from the phone. Another phone app prompts health workers and volunteers to remind mothers of clinic appointments.

Mwana plans to expand its mobile health platforms, and won a Gold award in design for social impact from the Industrial Designers Society of America.

But for Wana to really work, it has to overcome an even larger problem: Finding a spot for mobile phone service remains a challenge in Zambia. Most families do not own a phone, and Mwana depends on the private phones community health workers to receive the results. One clinic worker described two places he can get service to do the mobile health work: on top of a high shelf in his house, or standing on an anthill in his village.