SMS service saves lives


South Africa needs more than antiretroviral medication in its fight against the HIV/Aids epidemic. As a country with a high number of HIV-positive people, the key for South Africain winning this battle is to empower people with information.

To address this, the VodacomMobile Health project was launched in Hillbrow and Malvern, Johannesburg, in June 2011. The cellphone-based project, which uses SA’s high cellphone penetration to reach HIVpositive people by sending them SMSes, is already helping about 5 200 HIV-positive South Africans with information.

Prevention and awareness is addressed through Young Africa Live, a discussionbased mobisite; Mxit, a free mobile instant messaging system, where discussion forums are set up to promote conversations about HIV; and a Please Call Me campaign to encourage people to contact the HIV 911 call centre for information.

Among those who are benefiting from this initiative is Hillbrow resident Thandiwe Ngoxeka, who says the project has been a big turning point in the treatment of her disease since antiretrovirals were first made available in 2004. Diagnosed with HIV/Aids in 1999, Thandiwe (36) is a regular visitor at a government clinic in Esselen Street, Hillbrow, where she was tested for sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis, and where she receives her CD4 (cluster of differentiation 4) count. She immediately saw the potential of the SMS service when she was approached by a recruiter at the clinic.

Three types of SMS services are offered.The first is to notify people that the results of their CD4 count is available. The words “HIV” and “ARV” never appear in these SMSes to make sure they don’t reveal the receiver’s status. “People get tested and often don’t come back for their results,” says Maya Makanjee, chief officer corporate affairs at Vodacom. “They forget or can’t take a day off work to go back to the clinic. Other patients do come back, but the results aren’t always available for them on the day, which means they’ve wasted their time. The Vodacom Mobile Health programme aims to encourage patients to stay in the healthcare system and receive treatment.”

A second SMS service reminds patients of their appointments at a clinic. One is sent two weeks before the appointment, another reminder is sent a day before and a third SMS is sent the day after to thank the person for making the appointment or to remind them to make another one soon. This has been particularly helpful to Thandiwe, who used to avoid making appointments and would rather wait for her medication to run out before going back to the clinic. “They always tell us you mustn’t wait till the medication is finished, but I sometimes forget this,” she says.

The third SMS service is probably the most significant. SMSes are sent every week to remind patients to take their medication. Patients also receive health tips to help them make the most of living with HIV. This service is significant because many patients don’t have internet access or wouldn’t know where to find this information.

“The SMSes are helpful and I take note of all the advice. It also means you don’t have to go to the clinic every time you feel sick. It has really improved my life a lot,” Thandiwe says. Nicolette Naidoo, a researcher at the Wits Reproductive Health Institute in Johannesburg, says the SMSes also provide emotional support. “The service makes patients aware that somebody cares about them and that they don’t have to deal with their situation on their own.”

People need to know HIV isn’t a death sentence. Thandiwe feels that too many people who test positive for HIV resign themselves to an early death when help is in fact available. “HIV doesn’t kill people; people kill themselves. I’ve had about 10 friends who died from Aids. They all asked, ‘Why me?’ But it’s just a disease. People must learn to take responsibility.”

Vodacom Mobile Health tries to help by encouraging patients to stay in the public healthcare system – and there has already been a marked improvement. Moreover, Makanjee says the project is expanding its service to the Hillbrow Community Centre and hopes to soon include the Johannesburg General Hospital as well.

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