Mobile phones transforming HIV testing in Africa

9 May, 2012, Sanday Chongo Kabange

Mobile phones are transforming the way HIV test results are being transmitted to AIDS patients in Africa, a study has shown.

AIDS is one of the biggest diseases affecting the continent due to limited access to antiretroviral treatment and heath care.

AIDS related deaths account for close to 60% of all total deaths annually and mobile phone penetration has doubled over the last 10 years.[frax09alpha]

It is for these reasons that the World Health Organisation (WHO) embarked on an investigation to determine whether mobile phone technology could be used to transform the delivery of health care services to AIDS patients in Africa.

A WHO backed study published in the agency’s Bulletin, said the time it took to relay HIV test results to patients’ health facilities could be “dramatically” reduced by using mobile phone text messaging.

Scientists who carried out the study in Zambia found that the turnaround times for delivering a diagnosis by SMS (Short Message Service) were almost twice as fast compared to traditional postal methods.

The average time for a result notification from a testing lab to a health facility fell from 44.2 days to 26.7 days.

“We believe that this research signals how the processes behind testing of HIV and other illnesses can be transformed and improved through mobile phone technology, ensuring that healthcare facilities and patients are provided with their results far more quickly,” said Phil Seidenberg of Boston University in the U.S. Seidenberg is one of the authors of the research that was jointly conducted with the Zambia Centre for Applied Health Research and Development and the Zambian Ministry of Health.

E-health, where digital technology is used to support health systems and m-health, where mobile phones and tablet computers are used are seen as key to improving healthcare in the near future.

In addition to decreasing turnaround time for HIV testing, these technologies can also improve treatment by getting people onto ART earlier, researchers said in a news statement.

“As more people use mobile phone technology in Africa, more opportunities arise to harness e-health and m-health in support of the expansion of earlier ART for HIV, and to retain people on ART, particularly mothers and children,” said Dr Reuben Granich, Medical Officer in WHO’s Department of HIV/AIDS.

UNICEF in Zambia and the researchers developed the study to address concerns that the slow transmission of test results led to critical delays in children accessing treatment.

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