Fighting malaria via the SMS

James Ratemo | 05 May 2010
The Standard (Kenya)
Malaria has been in the category of Aids and tuberculosis — as killer diseases — and deserves deathblow at whatever cost.

However, studies show the fight against the killer disease has been jeorpadised not by lack of enough drugs, but poor distribution. Many patients die due to poor treatment and shortage of drugs at health centres where they are needed most yet, in others, the drugs lie unused in stores.

A new technology that uses SMS to track movement of drugs and stock levels in health centres is boosting the war against malaria, which claims more than 880,000 lives a year in Africa.

The technology has successfully been piloted in Tanzania and promises the disease can be controlled by prompt distribution of drugs.

A multinational computer, technology and IT consulting company, IBM, in partnership with Novartis and Vodafone, together with Roll Back Malaria and Tanzania's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare have reaped from the technology dubbed 'SMS for Life'. The system tracks movement and the supply of anti-malaria drugs in sub-Saharan Africa.

'SMS for Life' pilot project in Tanzania used mobile and electronic mapping technology to track and manage delivery and stock levels of the drugs to health facilities in rural areas.

Avoid stock-outs

Accurately monitoring the amount of medication available in a given location reduces the risk of running out of stock and ensures treatments are available to patients, even in the most remote areas, where and when they are needed. Common anti-malarial drugs include artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) and quinine injectables.

"Use of mobile phones to keep everyone informed of the stock position of anti-malaria medicines has prompted the supply chain to replenish stocks on time to avoid stock-outs," says David Mwakyusa, Tanzania's Health and Social Welfare Minister.

"We have saved hundreds of lives in the districts we piloted the programme," adds Prof Mwakyusa.

'SMS for Life' sends weekly automated alerts to staff at participating healthcare facilities, prompting them to check the stock and reply using an SMS with stock details.

These messages are collected in a central web-based system that provides information to district medical officers and other users. The data is accessible via the Internet or mobile phones.

The information allows the officers to re-distribute treatments to needy areas and coordinate emergency deliveries to health facilities as necessary.

Studies indicate that millions of people die of malaria in Africa due to delayed administration of drugs.

The project managers say many lives can now be saved in malaria-prone countries, including Kenya, if authorities adopt the technology.

At the start of the piloting in Tanzania, 25 per cent of health facilities did not have any ACTs in stock, but by the end, 95 per cent had at least one dosage form.

Using 'SMS for Life', participating health centres increased availability of malaria treatments threefold.

Prof Awa Marie Coll-Seck, executive director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership and Chair of the 'SMS for Life' Steering Committee in Lindi Rural says stock-outs were completely eliminated in all 48 facilities by week eight of the pilot.

Rewarding efforts

"The pilot has demonstrated that finally we have a solution to the longstanding problem of stock-outs at the health facility level," adds Jim Barrington, 'SMS for Life' Programme Director and former Chief Information Officer at Novartis.

"It is rewarding to see how a unique partnership and the innovative use of everyday technologies can positively impact the lives of malaria patients and families," he adds. "Malaria is a preventable disease, but without appropriate treatment it is life threatening."

"I look forward to a time when all clinics will use the system," says Joaquim Croca, Head of Health at Vodafone Group.

And Peter Ward of IBM, who is also the 'SMS for Life' Project Manager says, "This is an example of a truly innovative solution helping to solve a humanitarian problem."

In Kenya, cases of drug shortage in hospitals when stocks rot at the national store have been rampant.

Thus the SMS technology will definitely boost the war against malaria by ensuring quick stocking of dugs as need arises.

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