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.
The mechanism that makes this project possible is unique to countries where most cell phone owners use prepaid cell phone plans as opposed to long-term contracts. In South Africa, 95 percent of cell phone owners use pay-as-you-go service plans. When those customers run out of air-time, and want to tell a friend to call them, their plans allow them to send free "please call me" text messages.
With technology created by another local Project M partner -- the Praekelt Foundation -- those messages embed the text directing users to the national AIDS help line.
Robin Miller, a co-founder of the Praekelt Foundation, emphasizes that these messages are not spam.
"It's a user initiated interaction," she said. "If I don't have air time on my phone, I'm sending a request to a friend to phone me."
Before the "please call me" system, prepaid customers without air-time would call a friend and then hang up when they wanted their friends to call them. Realizing that traffic was being jammed by all the hang-ups, telecommunications companies developed this solution, Miller said.
In the country of 48 million people, 30 million of these messages are sent per day, she continued. South African telecommunications company MTN has donated 5 percent of its inventory of these messages -- 1 million per day -- to Project M for one year.
Assuming the project is successful this year, Miller said they hope to extend the initiative across Africa.
Future plans also include targeting those South Africans with AIDS who are currently receiving therapy and reminding them of scheduled clinic visits.
Although the technology is only being used in pilot programs, some experts say cell phones could play an increasingly significant role in delivering health care in the United States as well.
This summer, for example, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte School of Nursing launched a text message-based AIDS education program for teenagers. Students who agreed to participate receive brief phone messages, such as "U can get HIV with unprotected sex," and then respond to indicate that they have read the text. Supported by the National Institutes of Health, the project targets African-American youth and will last for two years.
"We're using the medium with which they are most familiar with and attune to," said Patricia Grady, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research with the National Institutes of Health, about the teenagers. "It seems that if they were that comfortable with a technology that is a second nature, then they may pay more attention to the messages that came that way.
"We're tapping into a very new use of the technology," she said, adding that, to her knowledge, this study was one of the first of its kind supported by the NIH. "Our studies are focused on the youth group –- the teens –- but I don't think there's any reason it couldn't be used for others."
Indeed, Baltimore-based WellDoc Communications Inc., a technology-based health care company, is already using mobile technology to support older diabetes patients.