Tue, Mar 09, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Cellphones Africa’s latest tool against HIV-AIDS infections

AFP , LAGOS

Cellphones may be a key weapon in the war against HIV and AIDS in Africa, the head of the UNAIDS agency said.

The relatively new technology has a role to play in a continent plagued by inadequate health centers and dilapidated infrastructure, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe said.

“You can talk about different policies, about capacity building, but you can’t beat this kind of epidemic with [a] facility-based approach only,” he said.

A major mobile telephone operator in Nigeria already runs a toll-free call scheme that links callers to counselors on HIV-AIDS concerns.

“It’s a fascinating initiative,” Sidibe said. “Its advantage is that you don’t have to move from your place to a center where ... you may be stigmatized.”

“You have free communication and quality advice, which can help you take a decision,” he said.

With basic intensive training and armed with cellphones, local community or village workers could be a part of the health service delivery system, he said.

Despite the resources poured in years into Sub-Saharan Africa to combat HIV-AIDS, the region remains the world’s most heavily affected, accounting for 67 percent of HIV infections, UNAIDS’ figures showed.

“You need first to look at a community-based approach, tap on non-conventional facilities,” Sidibe said during a recent trip to Nigeria.

It was time that Africa, saddled with a myriad of economic, political and social woes, got back to basics, he said.

“I don’t think in any of our African countries we will be able to wait to have professionals, or to have enough of those people,” Sidibe said. “It is time to reinforce our capacity to use the modern technology differently.”

Africa, a continent with one of the highest numbers with access to cellphones, should take advantage of the digital revolution to reach out widely, he said.

“It’s something we need to start replicating in Africa, remember we have more mobile phones in Africa than in north America,” he said.

Nigeria has more than 70 million cellphone line subscribers: about one line for every two people.

A pilot project using cellphones is underway in Nigeria’s northern Kaduna State and southwestern Ondo State.

Village workers — who have barely been through secondary school — have been trained to identify symptoms of minor ailments.

They tour villages examining patients and use their cellphones to call up trained medical workers at a major referral center to get diagnosis and prescriptions dictated over the phone.

“Community health workers go out with a mobile phone connected to a central referral hospital, can take temperatures ... and doctors at the referral units advise on drugs to administer,” Sidibe said. “Using all these types of approaches can help us improve information systems and expand delivery by reaching the poor in the community.”

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