Puzzling AIDS News Item

I don’t normally delve into the fray of world news on my blog. Today, in my BBC Daily e-mail, there was a link to a detailed feature which just made me wonder.

It seems that in South Africa, they are now using text messaging to send out info-alerts to urge people to get tested for HIV/AIDS.  The statistics associated with it are most interesting and raise questions of a philosophical nature.

There are over 43 million cell and other mobile devices in a  country of 49 million people. Almost 95% are prepaid, offering almost total communication coverage. The UN estimates that over 6 million people live with HIV in South Africa. 350,000 people in SA die from AIDS related disease each year. Zinny Thabethe, a HIV activist and organizer with Project Masiluleke, says, “South Africa is the epicentre for the global HIV epidemic.  HIV testing is widely available, but only 5% manage to get tested...most people only get a test when they are about to die.” Project originator, Gustav Praekelt, says, “this is the largest ever use of mobile phones for health information.”

(30 million messages were sent out daily in the pilot project. The pilot project revealed that National Aids Hot line calls rose from 1000 to 4000 when the system was used. The system will go live in December, sending out 1,000,000 calls a day.)

It’s not the initiative which I find disturbing. What I find hard to understand, is how and when the development and distribution of technology superseded any moral priority we may have held to  insure the survival and health of our world’s citizens.  At what point in time did society make it an easier, more obvious and appealing choice for an impoverished population in the grips of an HIV epidemic, to buy a cell phone rather than a condom? I find it paradoxical that technology has now become the default vehicle to initiate what would have been at one time,  a grass roots blood testing and education campaign.  Is it arrogant of me to wonder why an entire  population acquired cell phones before they had access to a  successful public health strategy for a preventable disease? It’s great that this project is working, but I am left wondering how the faceless giant known generically as “Technology” morphed into our social and moral consciousness as the priority in our lives. I find it unsettling and thought-provoking.

The project, by the way was developed by a group of technology firms, including Nokia Siemens Networks and HIV charities, design firms and educational organizations such as National Geographic.

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6 responses to “Puzzling AIDS News Item

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  2. Technology shmechnology! I can’t get my head aroung the idea that a cell phone first on a list of things needed. Mmmm I need a few thing I need condoms, food, shelter and– Oh! before I get any of those things I’ll need a cell phone. Well, tho really cares if i’m dying of AIDS, at least I’ll look cool with my phone. Perhapse they’ll put it up to my ear when i’m in the box…

  3. Pingback: Global Voices Online » South Africa: Using Cell Phones To Combat AIDS

  4. I think you may be misunderstanding this program; this project uses an already abundant, but underused resource (namely the extra spaces in a special kind of peer-to-peer text message called a Please Call Me) to deliver healthcare information in local languages like Zulu. Noone is required to buy a cellphone to participate, and as you mention, the project has already had a significant impact on the number of people getting tested.

    Cell phones work as a public health tool because they are already in the hands of 90% the citizens, because they allow for a confidentiality that routes around issues of stigma, and because they reach people in a culturally relevant way. Condoms are available; antiretroviral meds are available, but without relevant communications, people don’t use them. This project amplifies the effectiveness of previously ineffective public communications programs, and should be applauded!

  5. I applaud any effort that works to resolve the world AIDS crisis. I still think it is very puzzling that we have arrived at a point in time/ history when 90% of the citizens of one of a country (where according to statistics, only 60% have a flush toilet, 23.6 % are unemployed, and only 10% have attained higher education, with 10% never getting any education) have cell phones. It’s just my musing about how different priorities are in some parts of the world. I don’t have a cell phone and never will. In Canada, there are 35 million people, and in December, 2006, less than 67% if Canadians reported owning a cell phone.

  6. I just found this blog and being from the area, I find it interesting that people who have no idea of the culture and living conditions would have some of the comments I’m reading. Yes, the stats are correct ….flushing toilets, unemployment rates, education ultimately become part and parcel of a system that is still under construction after the apartheid reign. It will yet take years before the infrastructure has been improved and proven for the 30million+ underpriviledged.
    One is not encouraged to buy a cellphone over buying a condom. However, no one has to be told to buy a cellphone (cost US$10+) if they have to stay in contact with everyone else. You forget the infrastructure makes it almost impossible to own a house phone (that includes phone lines and appropriate housing)! It is also cheaper for the economy to go wireless in today’s world of interconnectivity.
    The same infrastructure prevents the poor from owning TV’s, buying everyday newspapers, etc. So, I ask, how else is a responsible health initiative to reach the audience it wants? I say this was a very innovative idea and if it helps the situation, so be it. By the way, I do agree with the concern that after a while, it will be considered spam, but let it work while it can. You cannot change people’s attitudes overnight and education is a large part of it. Cell phones are the least of the problem!

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