Mobile phones help bolster Uganda's fight against HIV

by Max Delany

Stella Nayiga clutches her mobile phone as she describes the messages that she received punctually every morning and evening for over a year, reminding her to take her antiretroviral (ARV) drugs regularly.

"The text messages would come twice a day and were saying things like 'Dear friend, please take care of yourself' and when you got them you knew it was time to take your medicine," Nayiga, 28, told AFP.

"As a human being you can always forget to take the drugs -- maybe not for the whole day but sometimes for some hours -- but this service really helps you to remember."

An HIV-positive in the Kampala suburb of Kawempe, Nayiga was part of an innovative scheme that used mobile phones to help remind around 400 patients diagnosed with the virus to take their ARVs regularly.

A collaborative project between a local clinic and a Dutch-run non-governmental organisation, the programme is part of an attempt in Uganda to harness the power of to help fight HIV.

Those involved say that it soon became clear that receiving the daily messages was a big help for the people taking the drugs.

"We saw that because of the mobile messaging there was a really tremendous improvement in adherence," said Samuel Guma, director of Kawempe Home Care, which runs the clinic involved.

ARVs -- taken twice daily -- require a minimum adherence rate of around 95 percent to be truly effective and the SMS scheme saw the number of people taking the drugs correctly rise from 75 percent to over 90 percent.

Sitting in an office in an upscale suburb of Kampala, Bas Hoefman, founder of the Dutch-run NGO Text to Change, the organisation behind the text messaging programme, lists the different ways mobile phones can be used to fight HIV.

Starting off in Uganda five years ago, Text to Change used SMS quizzes to try and educate people about HIV issues and encourage them to go for testing -- sometimes offering incentives such as phone credit.

Since then the organisation has run over 30 HIV-related projects using mobile phones across Africa, such as promoting medical male circumcision in neighbouring Tanzania -- and has reached an estimated 1 million people in Uganda alone.

"There was a fatigue for people receiving the old messages via traditional media -- mobile phones are now so commonly used, especially among the youth, that we realised it was time to repackage the information," Hoefman said.

With mobile phones used for everything from sending money to a rural relative to paying electricity bills, the number of subscribers in Uganda has boomed and now reaches over 40 percent of the population.

But while using mobiles may be an effective way to deal with HIV issues, the projects are dependent on foreign donors, and with aid budgets dwindling that means alternative ways of financing the projects need to be found.

"We are looking for business models of how we can combine sending out health messages with other messages that people are maybe willing to pay for," Hoefman said, citing market research and advertising as two possibilities.

Uganda has been widely praised for its groundbreaking AIDS policy, which saw condom use promoted and disease rates slashed from over 15 percent in the early nineties to around six percent.

In recent years, however, the HIV rate has started creeping up again as the government, influenced by US evangelists, has placed greater emphasis on policies such as abstinence.

While mobile technology in Uganda can be a useful tool to fight the spread of disease and target vulnerable groups, it cannot mask deeper government failures, health experts say.

"Uganda has a crisis -- it is not speeding up treatment coverage fast enough ... and it is not investing sufficiently in all of the prevention interventions communities need to protect themselves," said Asia Russell, international policy director at Health Gap, an AIDS advocacy group working in Uganda.

"More important is a clear commitment, along with a costed, implemented national plan to end AIDS in Uganda through dramatically scaled up prevention and treatment services."

As for those involved in the ARV text programme, they are searching for new financing to allow them to continue the programme after US government funding for parts of it -- including the ARV alerts -- stopped late last year.

"It can seem like an expensive venture in the short run, but in the long run it turns out to be very cheap," clinic director Guma said.

"But if more people take their medication regularly they become much less infectious, and then in turn we could start to see a drop in the rate of new infections."

Related Stories

Preventing HIV/AIDS one SMS at a time

date Nov 01, 2011

One million people in Uganda live with HIV/AIDS, where long distances and expensive travel costs significantly limit access to treatment. By employing an innovative mobile-technology strategy, Dr. Femida Gwadry-Sridhar, Director ...

Recommended for you

Indiana HIV outbreak, hepatitis C epidemic sparks US alert

date Apr 24, 2015

Federal health officials helping to contain an HIV outbreak in Indiana state issued an alert to health departments across the U.S. on Friday, urging them to take steps to identify and track HIV and hepatitis C cases in an ...

Why are HIV survival rates lower in the Deep South than the rest of the US?

date Apr 22, 2015

The Deep South region has become the epicenter of the US HIV epidemic. Despite having only 28% of the total US population, nine states in the Deep South account for nearly 40% of national HIV diagnoses. This region has the highest HIV diagnosis rates and the highest number of people living with HIV of any ...

A bad buzz: Men with HIV need fewer drinks to feel effects

date Apr 20, 2015

Researchers at Yale and the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System compared the number of drinks that men with HIV infection, versus those without it, needed to get a buzz. They found that HIV-infected men were more sensitive to ...

Research informs HIV treatment policy for inmates

date Apr 16, 2015

A national, five-year study of care for inmates with HIV brought strangers together, produced policy change in the Delaware Department of Corrections and documented the importance of good communication and ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.