Preventing HIV/AIDS one text message at a time

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Mobile technology connects us with the world from anywhere at any time. With the click of a button, we have instant access to endless supplies of information, opinion and interaction. Most of us consider “being connected” a modern convenience. But for some, a cell phone could be a life saver.

In Uganda, 1 million people live with HIV/AIDS. While treatment options are available, access is limited. Many rural residents must overcome long distances and expensive travel costs to reach the closest clinic. Even then, limited supplies mean many go home empty-handed. Effective disease management requires easier access to care. According to Dr. Femida Gwadry-Sridhar, Director of I-THINK Research at Lawson Health Research Institute, mobile phones could provide a much-needed solution.

Despite Uganda’s health care infrastructure, the country is surprisingly tech-friendly. Over 10 million residents currently own a cell phone or other mobile device. “The cost of acquiring cell phones is not as burdensome as it is in North America,” Dr. Gwadry-Sridhar explains. “Since many of the service providers have been able to make agreements with the network providers, they’re able to offer phones and air time usage at significantly lower costs.” By tapping into this widespread trend, she hopes to create a virtual network for care delivery.

Dr. Gwadry-Sridhar and her team plan to develop animated educational messages that will be sent to individual cell phones via text message. “We plan to take a technology that is ubiquitous, easily accessible, and easy to use, and use it to educate the people of Uganda, and make them participants in the model of delivery,” she says. Each message will include valuable health information to help users better manage their disease. They will also allow users, clinics, and health care providers to communicate directly through instant messaging.

For example, with one quick text from the nearest clinic, patients can be alerted as soon as their medication is available. This means they will get the treatment they need when they need it. Similarly, one IM from a remote medical expert could provide health care workers with life-saving advice and medical developments. This means patients will benefit from a higher, more universal standard of care regardless of where they live. For Dr. Gwadry-Sridhar and her team, this strategy extends far beyond sending and receiving information – it’s about sharing.

Dr. Gwadry-Sridhar hopes her mobile phone strategy will generate a grassroots impact, leveraging real-life social networks to influence group learning.  “We aren’t just about pushing information out, but also bringing it back in,” she explains. By engaging community leaders, academics, and health care providers, she hopes to drive widespread change toward better, more consistent care – a model that is particularly suitable to Ugandan culture.

Many Ugandan villages share a strong sense of community; everyone works together for the greater good. For some, this might entail babysitting the neighborhood children so that more members of the community can go to work to support the group. For others, it might involve pooling money and resources to help support a new business that will strengthen the local economy. According to Dr. Gwadry-Sridhar, this mutual responsibility will be crucial to supporting information sharing, both on-line and in person.

“HIV/AIDS impacts the entire community; it’s not about the individual anymore,” she explains. “Our strategy creates this network of people who are there to help you. It really embodies the sense of community – people helping one another.” By translating this open communication, awareness and education to the social sphere, Dr. Gwadry-Sridhar hopes to empower Ugandans to better manage HIV/AIDS no matter where they are.

The project is currently under consideration for funding. If successful, Dr. Gwadry-Sridhar and her team will work in conjunction with the Salama Shield Foundation (SSF), an international NGO based in Canada, Malawi and Uganda. SSF works to develop strategies for HIV/AIDS prevention, food and water security, financial security and education based on mutual respect, trust, and innovation.