SMS used to help Africa’s AIDS war

Online SMS applications are usually associated with promotional campaigns. They are quick and easy to execute, their marketing reach is enormous due to the sheer number of phones in circulation and they provide consumers with an easy way to interact and respond.

However online SMS applications can also be used to help save lives, as an innovative trial carried out by WelTel Kenya1  has clearly demonstrated. The story was covered by the Independent and in this pilot, SMS technology has been used to help HIV-positive patients stick to their strict drugs regimes by sending them SMS reminders to take their daily doses of life saving medication.

Apart from receiving their usual dose of antiretroviral drugs, the 500 plus patients involved in the trial also received discrete text messages and they were instructed to reply “Sawa” (“fine”) or “Shida” (“problem”) to these SMS messages within 48 hours.

Those who confirmed they had a problem or failed to respond to the message within the timeframe were called by a nurse to find out what was wrong.
The number of patients that achieved 100% adherence to their regime was 12% higher in the SMS group. In addition, the number of patients who were able to achieve suppression of HIV to below detectable levels in their blood – a key benchmark of success – was 9% higher in the SMS group.

Less than 4% percent of patients texted the reply “problem” With such results, a single nurse could use SMS technology to help manage the welfare of a thousand plus patients spread over a wide geographical area and expect to make follow-up calls to only 33 patients per week.

The trial was easy to implement because it was based on existing mobile communications infrastructure. Nurses used a computer to write and send out the messages. According to industry estimates mobile penetration is practically 100% in Kenya so you can almost guarantee that patients had access to a mobile phone. Such a system is more economical than expecting nurses to make personal visits to individual patients.

Online SMS applications are benefitting millions of people in other ways too. Take banking, for example. Millions of people in Africa, and indeed in other third-world countries do not have bank accounts because they can’t afford one, but they do have mobile phones. Using SMS technology as a driving force, organisations like M-Peso are giving poorer people access to financial services they could have only dreamt about 10 years ago. All you need to set up an account is a standard mobile phone, an M-Peso SIM and an identity card. Money can be added to our mobile phone account at designated agencies and all financial transactions are carried out more or less straight away via SMS.

SMS technology is allowing even the poorest people to save money, transfer money and pay their bills safely and securely.

Online SMS applications are by far the easiest way to make contact with people dispersed over vast areas. No special equipment is needed and the majority of people have basic mobile phones capable of receiving texts.  Bulk SMS messages can be sent to thousands of people via email to SMS or PC to SMS applications.

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