Cell phones saving lives in Kenya

Cell phones saving lives in Kenya



NOV. 4, NAIROBIThe Kathmandu Post)


When George Mburu hears his cell phone bleep on Sunday in his home in Nairobi’s Majengo slum, it fills him with energy. He grabs his Nokia to read a message that reminds him to take his medicine and, perhaps more importantly, that he is not alone.


Mburu, 32, is one of 500 HIV-positive patients in Nairobi who receive an SMS every Sunday from the HAART Cell Phone Study Center, a government initiative experimenting on the use of cell phones in the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes Aids.


Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region most heavily affected by HIV, accounting for more than two thirds of all people living with HIV globally. Healthcare systems in many countries are overburdened and underfunded.


Over two million people are infected with the virus in Kenya, and four out of the five Kenyans with HIV are still unaware of their status, according to the Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey.


The prevalent stigma and the fear attached with the virus have been stopping many people from coming to clinics. “Many patients here hesitate to visit public clinics even to get treatment fearing that their status would be public,” said Nurse Elizabeth Wibo at the Voluntary Testing Center at Majengo.


The cellphone project aims to tackle this stigma by offering a discreet monitoring system.


“We are hoping to take this pilot program to a massive scale by next year, when we will have our reports ready,” said Sarah Karanja, Coordinator of the pilot project. “The patients have found it very helpful and want it to continue. The results are very exciting.”


“For the last two years, the SMS has been reminding me about my anti-retroviral doses,” said Mburu at the HIV Clinic in Pumwani where he was on his quarterly visit to brief his progress report. “I feel much better now. I know someone, somewhere is taking care of me.”


The private nature of communication by cellphone seems to be a key to the project’s success. “Cell phones serve as great alternative because the patients face difficulties coming to public clinic for reasons like being noticed and stigmatized or they cannot absent their jobs for minor counseling,” said Karanja


The SMS program has been emerging as one of the best solutions to promote behaviour change, abstinence, and adherence to drugs in other countries like South Africa, Australia and Mexico as well.


“Before I came here, I was so depressed,” said Virginia, a 35-year-old mother who was waiting at the HIV Clinic in Pumwani to know whether her three-month-old baby had the HIV virus. “Now, with strict adherence, treatment, and care, I have regained my health.” She is one of the lucky 17 percent HIV infected (350,000) who is receiving anti-retroviral treatment.


“The biggest challenge in combating HIV is adherence to anti-retroviral therapy,” said Dr. Francis Nyamiobo, a senior doctor at the clinic. “The best and efficient solution, I think in this age of communication, lies in utilizing the personal gazettes like cell phones to reach to the target population.”

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