One of the project’s major sponsors, the Praekelt Foundation, is determined to change the staggering statistics, and its web site claims that inadequate public communication programs coupled with the social stigma associated with the illness account for the fact that less than 5% of South Africans have been tested. This African organization develops innovative mobile technology solutions to improve the health and well being of people living in poverty.
There is little doubt that mobile phone communication holds the key to unlocking the door to public health and safety. The goal of Project Masiluleke is to add HIV/Aids-related messages to about one million please-call-me messages per day for a whole year, which commenced on October 1, 2008 and will extend through until September 30, 2009.
For South Africans, the “please-call-me” is a very popular means of communication that is a specialized version of the short message service (SMS). It allows the sender to request that the recipient of the message call them back. Depending on the network provider, the subscriber can send several please-call-me requests each day featuring a variety of messages in several official languages, for example: “Constantly sick and worried that you might be HIV positive? Please call the Aids Helpline 08000 12322”.
In the words of one spokesman for the Praekelt Foundation:
“Approximately 30 million such messages are being sent per day across the three major mobile networks. For this campaign, Project Masiluleke inserts HIV/Aids messaging at the bottom on an existing please-call-me sent from one mobile user to another.”
Upon calling the helpline, recipients of the please-call-me will have access to trained counselors who can provide accurate information and referral for HIV testing, treatment and care. Some other participants of the project include: MTN, (Africa’s leading cellular telecommunications company headquartered in Nigeria) Nokia Siemens Networks, Frog Design, iTeach and the National Geographic Society.
Mobile phone communication as a force for social change is a dynamic phenomenon that is spreading as fast across Africa as an unattended brush fire. Mobile phones hold the potential power to profoundly impact social and economic change and to offer a way to leapfrog traditional development approaches that haven’t been working.
In the words of a Praekelt Foundation spokesman:
“We are supported…by the in-house expertise of our colleagues at Praekelt Consulting. We also work closely with government, non-profit, private sector, research institutions and other partners that share our commitment to improve the health and well being of people living in poverty.”
Project Masiluleke represents a monumental attempt to harness the power of mobile technology to confront one of the world’s gravest public health crises. This innovative and ambitious endeavor is destined to help South Africa in its overwhelming conflict with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics. Project Masiluleke is a coalition of hope propelled by human concern and compassion. South Africa has more HIV positive citizens than any country in the world. In some provinces, more than 40% of the population is infected. Of those who are HIV positive, only a few, about 10%, are receiving anti-retroviral therapy. The figures speak for themselves, as the 90% who remain untreated are very likely to die horrible deaths.
Ignorance is the biggest enemy and it must be stemmed in order to quell these terrible epidemics. In addition to the social stigma attached to the disease, misinformation is widespread and many really do not know how the disease is actually spread. Sadly compounding an already terrible situation is the fact that South Africa’s overburdened healthcare system is incapable of providing care to the millions who are in dire need and many of these poor souls enter the system with end-stage HIV or full blown AIDS.
Project Masiluleke will surely make a difference as a high-impact, low-cost tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS and TB. Nearly 100% of South Africans have access to a mobile device and the project will touch virtually every one of them. Conservative estimates indicate that Project Masiluleke has the power to mobilize hundreds of thousands to get tested in the first year alone. Trained operators provide callers with accurate healthcare information, counseling and referrals to local testing clinics.
The system is still undergoing changes, tune-ups if you will, but already this service has helped to triple the average daily call volume to the National AIDS Helpline in Johannesburg. Project Masiluleke second phase is expected to improve “virtual call centers,” where existing help-lines will be augmented by teams of highly trained HIV+ patients. These individuals will answer questions from the general public remotely via their mobile devices. Counselors chosen will be extremely knowledgeable about their illness, diligent about their treatment regimen and intimately familiar with the meaning with the ramifications of an HIV+ diagnosis. These virtual call centers hold the potential to create hundreds of new jobs and considerably increase the capacity of South Africa’s health response system.
South Africa demands a radical solution to truly reverse its HIV/AIDS and TB crises. For the third phase of this wonderful project, patrons are considering the establishment of a low cost, at-home HIV testing system with mobile counseling support. Analogous to a pregnancy test, these distributed diagnostics would provide a free, private and reliable way for anyone to take the critical first step of knowing his or her status, with high-quality information provided via mobile phone devices.
Home testing has its own issues, but there is no question that an effective HIV home-testing service could help trigger system-wide positive change. Early response from South African government and healthcare officials has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The creators of the project hope that this will propel global action in other areas of the world where disease is devouring its population.
Here’s to the mobile phones and the government of South Africa for stepping up to the plate to help its many afflicted citizens.
Here’s to Project Masiluleke.
May your light long burn forever bright.