Health & Wellbeing

Fighting malaria with SMS

Fighting malaria with SMS
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District Pharmacist Mahenge Ulanga with emergency stocks of Coartem (Photo: Olympia Wereko-Brobby)
District Pharmacist Mahenge Ulanga with emergency stocks of Coartem (Photo: Olympia Wereko-Brobby)
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In Africa a million people, mostly pregnant women and young children, die every year due to malaria despite the fact that the disease is mostly curable. The problem lies in that life saving drugs are not available when and where it is needed most. "SMS for Life" is a new Short Messaging Service (SMS) based malaria medicine stocking system developed by IBM, Novartis, Vodafone and Roll Back Malaria partnership that aims to solve this problem. It uses a combination of existing mobile phones, existing SMS service and combined it with intuitive websites to track and manage the supply of drugs to ensure stocks do not run out.

The concept was developed by pharmaceutical company Novartis and a team of international students taking part in IBM's internship programme, Extreme Blue. IBM is managing the project,and Vodafone is assisting with the SMS system.

A trial taking place in 135 villages throughout Tanzania sees staff at each of the rural health facilities receive automated SMS messages, which prompt them to check the remaining stock of anti-malarial drugs each week.

Using toll-free numbers, staff reply with an SMS to a central database system hosted in the United Kingdom, providing details of stock levels, and deliveries can be made before supplies run out at local health centers. This system was pilot tested in 135 villages covering over a million populations.

During the first few weeks of the pilot, the number of health facilities with stock-outs in one district alone, was reduced by over 75%. “The SMS for Life program has already had a positive effect in Tanzania,” says Senior Health Officer with Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Tanzania, Winfred Mwafongo. “I've seen district medical officers ordering urgent stock replacements for various health facilities. During a visit to 19 rural health facilities in one district alone, I saw huge improvements in their inventory management systems. I'm very impressed with the results so far and look forward to following the rest of the pilot through to completion."

The early success of the SMS for Life pilot project has the Tanzanian authorities interested in implementing the solution across the rest of the country. Tanzania has around 5000 clinics, hospitals and dispensaries, but at any one time, as many as half could potentially be out of stock of anti-malarial drugs.

“Collaboration is critical to tackle health problems of the developing world, and we are proud to be part of the SMS for Life partnership, a project that will reduce stock-outs, and ensure that mothers and their young children in Africa have access to life-saving anti-malarial medicines,” says Silvio Gabriel, Executive Vice President and Head of the Malaria Initiatives at Novartis.

Designed as a public and private partnership leveraging the skills and resources of several companies, SMS for Life could have far-reaching implications for existing health systems worldwide. Several other African states are already keen to introduce the project.

Via Novartis

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I think it’s horrible that these kid’s and adults have to die from something as curable as malaria and it’s very laudable that somebody has come up with a good why to treat it, but we had malaria down to almost “zero” in the late 1960’s by the use of DDT with no ill effects to humans, but it was banned because it was “dangerous” to people and animals, and all since than has been proven as faults. So why have millions upon millions of people been allowed to die in the decades since then when all we have to do is re-introduce the use of DDT?
F Beckett
I realize that the SMS that you discuss is a malaria fighting system, but the best way to fight malaria has always been to stop it before it starts. The use of DDT, yes the dirty initials, is the very best way to destroy the problem. The DDT syndrome of believing the unscientific discussion of \"what it did\" to the environment is not substantiated. I understand that the World Health Organization has negated its objections to its use and it should be used to nullify the mosquitoes that carry malaria. Please explore this option for the sake of those individuals that suffer and die from unabated propagation of the insects that are the real problem.
Thank for the informative post. Studies suggest that there are approximately 4-billion mobile phones on earth this very minute. This means that, of a global population of roughly 6 billion, potentially two out of every three people have access to a mobile phone. While a lot of the focus has been on the business application of bulk SMS, health care facilities and institutions are now also able to make use of this efficient technology to improve everyday health and increase their reach.
For more info on this topic visit: Mobile Health Through Bulk SMS -
Kris Subramanian
It is interesteing to note how a small piece of TEXT can be used for doing customer service, tech support and in our case helping people with addictions to recover.
Hummingbytes Inc. ( lately implemented a SMS based health care system for a local hospital in Massachussetts, USA. People with addiction can send their concerns or questions via TEXT to a US short code. We deliver the message to the hospital on a web front end. Coaches or doctors reply to the SMS from the web, which is then delivered back to the originator on their cell phones. Simple, yet far reaching solution and most of all anonymous !
There are lot of other applications that can be created with SMS on one end and the web on the other end. SMS based Q&A system for conferences, SMS based technical support etc.