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Can mobile technologies turn the tide in the fight against HIV/Aids?

Read time 6min 20sec

Three little letters. A notorious acronym for which testing positive signals everything but good news, and a negative status brings a sigh of nervous relief. Like a grim version of a fairytale, everyone knows the basics; the shadow it casts across our country, the red ribbons, the orphans, the survivors, the gaunt figures and chilling statistics. Today marks World Aids Day, and as our focus turns again to this preventable, yet ravaging disease, technology is emerging as one of the most powerful elements in the battle against it.

Thanks to the rocketing uptake of mobile technology, from the busiest city centre to the remotest of villages, cellphones are millions' only means of keeping in contact with distant doctors, accessing information, and finding help. This is a major boon in areas where a basic clinic can be a good day's travel away, with the developing world now accounting for almost 70% of the five billion subscribers globally, according to the UN Foundation.

In Africa, where booming mobile growth rates are matched by massive healthcare challenges, the small screen has huge potential. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 67% of HIV infections worldwide, while SA retains the morbid honour of being the country with the most HIV infected people in the world. The figure stands at around 5.7 million, according to UNAids, with 18% of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 49 being infected.

As long as we're talking numbers, here's another: Five hundred million. That's how many people will be using mobile health apps by 2015, according to a global mobile health market report, revealed at the recent mHealth Summit, in Washington.

The study's head researcher said the mobile revolution in healthcare is finally happening, as both health professionals and consumers adopt cellphones as a means to improve medical and support services.

For many who feel they have been robbed of power due to their HIV status, a mobile phone serves as a tool for education, action, and to keep in contact with a support network. It's also a way to get informed insight and diagnoses from afar. As one Ericsson executive puts it: “Never underestimate the value of speaking to someone who knows what they're talking about.”

Silent sentence

The thing about mobile is that it breaks one of the epidemic's most paralysing characteristics - stigma. Here you sit, thoughts consumed over a one-time slip-up, a sexual assault, a needle prick during a routine procedure... where do you go when you're not even sure what to ask, and the implications of seeking help dredge up fears of their own?

Cellphones offer a gateway to vital information and assistance in seconds, without having to leave the house or anyone having to know. Sure, the goal is to get to the point where asking these questions brings no sense of shame, but for the moment, much more good comes from learning how and where to find help than keeping mum, and potentially endangering others.

Then there's one of the biggest factors in dealing with a disease of any kind - support. Someone who will listen without judging, who understands, who can offer advice, fellowship, or simply an ear. Many are blessed with friends and family who fill this role; many more are not. Enter platforms like Mxit's Angel service, where HIV/Aids information and counselling are freely available. While they may not replace a strong home network, for someone in isolated agony, it's a lifeline to a reassuring community, with tools to get further help.

For someone in isolated agony, it's a lifeline to a reassuring community.

Lezette Engelbrecht, online features editor, ITWeb

Government has picked exactly that theme - greater engagement and interaction - as the focus of this year's Aids Day campaign, by encouraging dialogue on HIV/ Aids to help dispel myths around the condition. One major drive, for example, calls on South Africans to know their status by getting tested (you can SMS to find your nearest testing facility), and inspiring others to do the same through Twitter and social networking platforms.

All this comes at a time when there's a window to gain the edge on the epidemic, with both progress and renewed challenges emerging. A recent UNAids report shows the world is beginning to reverse the spread of HIV - SA is among 34 African countries to stabilise or reduce the rate of new HIV infections by more than 25% from 2001 to 2009.

It is also possible for SA to cut the number of new HIV infections to below 200 000 a year by 2020 - half the present level, according to a study released this month. But the right policies and major investments are required to achieve this reduction, with estimated total costs as much as $102 billion for prevention and treatment plans, as well as drug roll-outs.

Mobile could serve as an effective bridging platform, as institutions and governments look for new ways of addressing old problems. Various local organisations have seen the value in this, with groups like the Praekelt Foundation and Cell-life using cellphones for everything, from sending patient medication reminders to helping prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission.

A partnership initiative, called Project Masiluleke, leverages mobile technologies to advance the effective treatment of HIV and TB, such as a self-test kit in development, which allows you to perform an HIV test at home with the option of calling the national Aids hotline for assistance or to speak to a counsellor. The versatility, speed and convenience of mobile services can be used in a myriad ways, with none of the snaking queues and endless forms found in traditional systems.

Digital demise

The increasing influence of technology is also being used in other, more offbeat ways this World Aids Day. Musicians including Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, and Lady Gaga are signing off social networks such as Twitter and Facebook in a campaign called Digital Life Sacrifice.

It will see the stars remaining offline until the charity raises $1 million in what Keys calls “a direct, instantly emotional and a little sarcastic” way to get people to pay attention. The donations raised through SMS and bar code technology will support families affected by HIV/Aids in Africa and India, and could easily be generated by Gaga's Twitter followers alone - at seven million, along with 24 million Facebook fans.

This “digital death” is a vivid reminder of the millions who deal with Aids-related deaths every day, and the social media hostage-taking illustrates the cultural, social and economic power mobile interaction has come to hold. It's driving a fundamental shift in the way society functions.

For decades, medical technology has been the preserve of the few, with hi-tech machines and expertise available to a select number. Now, it is available to billions through simple short codes. Mobiles combine the technological side of healthcare with an ability to offer what people everywhere need in times of uncertainty, something reflected in the Masiluleke project's name: to give wise counsel or lend a helping hand.

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