Mobile Technology Doubles HIV Treatment Rate in Babies

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Kampala — HIV-infected babies have had their diagnosis time cut from three months to two weeks thanks to a mobile phone-based technology.

Infants with HIV need to begin medication as soon as possible to maximise their chances of survival. The Early Infant Diagnosis (EID) system enables central hospital laboratories to send results directly to an SMS printer in local clinics, according to Charles Kiyaga, an EID coordinator at Uganda's Ministry of Health, which has piloted the scheme.

Blood samples are taken from infants at their local clinics and sent to central laboratories for the HIV test. The test results are then returned using the system's computer software over the mobile-phone network back to the local clinic and straight to a printer. They can thus be sent instantly even to remote areas that have no Internet access.

"The printout has the infant's information and the HIV results, and the data is handled in confidence by health-centre workers at their local clinic and only disclosed to the parents or guardians of the infant," said Kiyaga, who presented the results at the 4th National Paediatric HIV/AIDS Conference in Kampala (28-30 September).

The platform can be used with any mobile-phone provider, according to Kiyaga. The only requirement is that the printer is in an area with network access. Only seven laboratories in Uganda are equipped to test infants' blood for HIV infection, so blood samples are sent there from all over the country.

The results are usually returned to local health centres by mail but that can take up to three months because health centres often lack the transport needed to collect them regularly from local post offices.

Because of the long wait, many people get tired of repeatedly visiting clinics to try to get the results and eventually give up. Even for families who keep checking, the start of anti-HIV medication has been delayed.

In 2008, Uganda's Ministry of Health, supported by the William J. Clinton Foundation and other partners, developed policies to strengthen early infant diagnosis and HIV management. The pilot project used 40 SMS printer machines, developed in South Africa, in selected centres.

The situation improved where SMS printers were used, Kiyaga said. More than three quarters of mothers in these areas received the test results, compared with less than half before the system was introduced. As a result the number of HIV-positive infants receiving treatment has more than doubled, from 40 per cent to more than 90 per cent, in the last two years, Kiyaga said.