Text Messages Used to Combat AIDS in S. Africa

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Fresh Message

Grietjie Strydom is a medical doctor in South Africa and head of private programs for Right to Care, a health care provider funded by the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Cell phone campaigns should take off in South Africa, she said.

"This is a very important communication avenue that has not been exhaustively explored," said Strydom, who is not directly involved with Project Masiluleke.

"As long as the message is fresh and original, I think it will have a big impact."

The call centers can help people find testing facilities, overcome depression, figure out how to effectively use their medication, or refer people to medical experts.

Callers to help lines always remain anonymous—a critical consideration in a country where people generally don't talk about HIV/AIDS, said Zinhle Thabethe, a South African who co-founded iTeach, an HIV/AIDS education organization that is part of Project Masiluleke.

"The more HIV and AIDS is discussed through as many different communication channels as possible, the less it will be stigmatized," PEPFAR's Strydom said.

AIDS in South Africa

Thabethe, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2001 and told she had a year to live, calls South Africa "the epicenter of the epidemic."

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that of 47 million South Africans, nearly 6 million adults and children are infected with HIV—one of the highest rates in the world.

HIV/AIDS patients face poverty and unemployment, an overburdened public health system, crowded medical facilities that spread tuberculosis, and serious social stigmas—particularly for men, said Thabethe, who is also a National Geographic emerging explorer.

Though testing is widely available and treatment is often free, only 5 percent of South Africa's population has been tested, she said. Even then, it is usually only when they are dying that they seek help.

Challenges

South Africa is one of the most resource-constrained regions in the world, said Pop!Tech's Zolli.

Challenges include funding call centers, distributing free home HIV tests, and putting in place text messaging to remind patients of their medical appointments.

One solution, according to iTeach co-founder Krista Dong, may be to train unemployed AIDS patients to field requests for information and help via cell phone, creating what she calls a "virtual call center."

Zolli added that Project Masiluleke was "designed to serve as a scalable, high-impact model that can be replicated worldwide."

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