Text Messages Used to Combat AIDS in S. Africa

Tasha Eichenseher in Camden, Maine
for National Geographic News
October 24, 2008

As South Africa reels from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, health workers are turning to cell phone technology to get the word out about testing for the virus.

An ambitious text messaging campaign is expected to reach a million South Africans daily with information about HIV/AIDS counseling services and testing centers throughout the country.

The effort, called Project Masiluleke—which means "hope" and "warm counsel" in the South Africa's major language, Zulu—"is one of the largest ever uses of mobile phones for health info," according to Andrew Zolli, executive director of Pop!Tech, which helped coordinate and fund the project.

The initiative was announced this week at the annual Pop!Tech technology conference in Camden, Maine, and is expected to officially launch in South Africa next February.

"Please Call Me"

Cell phones are abundant in South Africa, with nearly 90 percent of the population using some kind of mobile technology, according to Zolli.

The majority of South Africans have prepaid phones, whose plans include free "please call me" text messages. Users send them when they are out of minutes.

The developers of Project Masiluleke struck a deal with South African cellular company MTN to send out one million "please call me" messages each day for the next year.

One message reads: "HIV + & being mistreated by your family of friends? For confidential counseling call AIDS Helpline on 0800012322."

Another says: "Frequently sick, tired, losing weight and scared that you might be HIV positive? Please call AIDS Helpline 0800012322."

The use of text messaging to spread this information isn't necessarily new—similar campaigns have launched in recent years. "But this campaign is the most ambitious we are aware of," said Robert Noble of AVERT, an U.K.-based AIDS charity that works in South Africa.

During three weeks of usability testing in October, Project Masiluleke helped increase average daily-call volume to the National AIDS Helpline in Johannesburg by nearly 200 percent, said Pop!Tech's Zolli, also a National Geographic visiting fellow. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

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