Mobile Tech Targets AIDS

As South Africa continues to battle one of the largest HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world, a group of health care workers and innovators is deploying what it hopes will be a powerful new weapon in the formidable fight: the cell phone.

By blasting approximately 1 million HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis text messages each day to the personal cell phones of the general public, the initiative aims to overcome the widespread stigma that prevents millions of South Africans from seeking testing and treatment.

Calling it the "largest ever" use of mobile devices for the delivery of HIV/AIDS and TB care, organizers launched Project Masiluleke (or simply "Project M") last week at the annual Pop! Tech technology conference in Camden, Maine.

The name of the initiative means "to give wise counsel" and "lend a helping hand" in Zulu.

The project grew out of the Pop! Tech Accelerator -– a social innovation incubator designed to support cutting edge, inter-disciplinary solutions to global problems -– and brings together an international coalition of partners, including design firm frog design and communications services giant Nokia Siemens Network.

"Because cell phone penetration in Africa and in South Africa is almost 100 percent ... this is the absolute perfect medium available to do this," said Dr. Krista Dong, an HIV and TB specialist and director of the South African HIV and TB outreach organization iTeach. Her organization is one of the key local partners on the initiative.

Project M also focuses on tuberculosis because it is one of the most common killers of HIV-positive patients in sub-Saharan Africa. As HIV weakens a person's immune system, it makes it more vulnerable to opportunistic infections like TB. Recognizing this fatal relationship, Dong's nonprofit iTeach stands for "Integration of TB in Education and Care for HIV/AIDS."

Overcoming the Stigma

According to the United Nations, South Africa has one of the highest AIDS/HIV rates in the world. The disease kills 1,000 people in the country every day. Yet, according to Project M's organizers, just 5 percent of the population has been tested for it.

Stigma, they say, is one of the most serious obstacles to increased HIV/AIDS testing. Reluctant to be seen standing in line at local clinics and hospitals, many in South Africa don't get tested or receive treatment until it is too late, the project organizers say.

Zinny Thabethe, an HIV campaigner with iTeach, is particularly familiar with the stigma surrounding AIDS. When she was diagnosed with the illness seven years ago she made the conscious decision to spark the difficult conversations others in her community wanted to avoid.

"The story of HIV always has a negative connotation, [it's] always related to death," she told "My message has always been about, how do you look at HIV as a person? ... Have people look at it in a different, positive light."

Crafted by Thabethe and iTeach, the Project M messages, which are broadcast in three languages -- English, Zulu and Sesotho -- reflect this more hopeful and encouraging tone.

One message says: "HIV+ & being mistreated your family or friends? For confidential counseling call AIDS Helpline on 0800012322." Another message asks if the user frequently feels sick and is scared that he might be HIV positive. All of the 120-character messages direct people to call the national AIDS Helpline.

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