HIV/Aids fight moves to mobile

Janine Erasmus

There’s a new weapon in the fight against HIV/Aids: the mobile phone. South Africa’s Project Masiluleke (Zulu for “to counsel”) is set to use mobile technology to help millions of people access treatment and more via their handsets.

Known simply as Project M, the initiative is the brainchild of the Pop!Tech Accelerator, an extension of the annual Pop!Tech conference in Massachusetts, US. The accelerator facilitates projects launched during the conference, an event that sees hundreds of visionary thinkers across the fields of science, technology, business, design, the arts, education, government and culture meeting to explore cutting-edge ideas that are aimed at shaping the future.

Project M was launched during the most recent three-day annual conference held in October 2007 and is expected to become operational in South Africa during the first half of 2008.

Using mobile messaging, people will be informed about dates, times and locations of HIV/Aids clinics in their areas, where they can be tested for infection, where they can contact a healthcare worker or get counselling, and other general information that will help to de-stigmatise the disease. Those already undergoing treatment will receive regular encouragement.

Other players in Project M include creative consultancy Frog Design, the national Department of Health, and iTeach, an HIV/Aids and tuberculosis care and information programme.

Frog Design will take existing software, used by patients in the US, and customise it culturally and linguistically for South African users. The company will work closely with local teams to ensure that they have a firm understanding of the cultural and economic situation.

“With Project Masiluleke, we have an incredible opportunity to collaborate with Pop!Tech and its partners to implement design strategy and thinking that will make a tremendous difference,” says Doreen Lorenzo, president and COO of Frog Design.

‘Everyone has a cell phone’

Pop!Tech’s decision to start working in South Africa was heavily influenced by South African Aids activist Zinhle Thabethe, recently named one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers for 2008, and a Pop!Tech community member.

Thabethe is outreach director of iTeach, working with Dr Krista Dong of Massachusetts General Hospital, who is the founder of iTeach. The organisation tackles the tuberculosis and HIV pandemic head-on in Thabethe’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, using a variety of resources. These include encouraging and educating people through the Sinikithemba (“we give hope”) clinic and choir, speaking at international symposia such as Pop!Tech, and now, embracing mobile technology.

“To deal with the scope of this problem, to even begin to make a dent, we need new ideas, crazy ideas,” says Dong. “And everyone, everyone has a cell phone.”

Reaching those in remote areas

Says Thabethe, “With Project M we’re aiming to bring in technology to accelerate access to care for people, especially those in rural areas.” The rationale behind this, she explains, is that bringing people to care at an earlier stage benefits all stakeholders, from the government right down to the family.

The longer a person waits before seeking help, she says, the more intensive is the treatment they ultimately need. This can cost not only the Department of Health dearly, but also the community, because that person often ends up so ill that they cannot contribute meaningfully, and the family, because in many cases a breadwinner will have been lost or a person needs intense care.

Using mobile phones to encourage people to pursue treatment as soon as possible will make a big difference, not only for the already overburdened South African health system but also for the individual.

“We’ve established that today about 90% of urban and rural South Africans have access to a mobile phone,” says Thabethe. “We want to capitalise on that because it’s a good medium for our message. And we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

“We’re going to bring the information to the people, because not everyone has access to a newspaper or television. Also, these two media have been known to portray HIV in a negative light but we will be taking positive action.”

Thabethe emphasises that the more resources are utilised, the greater the chances of success. “For instance, about 80% of HIV-infected South Africans will consult a traditional healer at some point in their lives, so healers need to be integrated into our strategy because they are often the first entry point into treatment.”

The relationship between traditional healers and doctors is important, says Thabethe, because while traditional healers are open to learning new ways of treatment, they know that they cannot treat Aids. They therefore refer people to healthcare based on Western medicine – but there are many Western doctors who have not yet shown confidence in traditional methods. Getting doctors and healers to work more closely together is one of the challenges addressed by iTeach.

Using a variety of strategies

There are also plans to bring South African-developed free instant messaging programme Mxit on board, Thabethe says. Using Mxit’s communication capabilities, those wanting to ask questions or who just want to talk can discuss their concerns with an impartial, yet knowledgeable counsellor, without fear that their families will be notified.

“Staying healthy in rural areas is not easy. Often to ask a simple question at community level is difficult, because of the stigma attached or simply because there is nobody qualified to help. If we use a platform that people – especially the youth – are enthusiastic about, such as Mxit, our message will have much more of an impact.”

According to an August 2007 article published on biz-community, a South African marketing and media information portal, the number of registered users of Mxit at that time was around 4.8 million. Most of them are South African, although Mxit is used in more than 120 countries around the world.

Recruiting celebrities to help spread the message is another effective approach and, as with Mxit, will target the most vulnerable section of the population in terms of HIV infection – the youth. Local kwaito superstar Zola has already expressed interest in becoming involved, according to Thabethe.

Even “please call me” messages are a potentially valuable tool in the Project M plan. Extensively used across all South African mobile networks, these free messages are not only a way of getting a recipient to call back when one’s airtime is low, but nowadays have advertisements attached for everything from local airlines to car hire to short-term insurance.

Mobile advertising specialists OTL, or On-the-Line, report that between 18 and 20-million “please call me” messages are delivered each day across South African mobile networks.

Bringing in the big guns

Representatives from Pop!Tech and Frog Design visited South Africa in mid-February to meet with the South African contingent.

The Pop!Tech Accelerator provides operational and project management and solicits other forms of support, including human resources, corporate partnerships, financial contributions, skills training, and media coverage.

Pop!Tech curator Andrew Zolli, who was recently named a fellow of the National Geographic Society, has been in talks with major South African mobile providers, and there is a move to bring local business on board as well. Says Thabethe, business is also affected by HIV/Aids when employees become ill. They should therefore be closely involved too, helping to preserve our society.

“We can’t expect the Department of Health to do it all,” she says. “There is a role for everyone to play – the department, business, and the community.”

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