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.

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