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Voxiva launches U.S. text service to aid pregnant women

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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A D.C.-based mobile technology firm is behind a new government effort to educate and encourage healthy habits in pregnant women.

Launched last week, the free "Text4baby" program sends tips to expectant mothers who opt in to receive pregnancy-related text messages on their cellphones. Voxiva, the firm administering the service, is hoping that the project will raise the profile of such messages as a tool for delivering health services in the United States. Launched on Thursday, the service reported 6,500 takers in the first 24 hours.

Voxiva has launched about 150 health-related text-message services around the world, mainly in developing countries where access to doctors is scarce. Such projects, typically underwritten by governments or pharmaceutical firms, have often been used as a tool to disseminate news about treating diseases such as diabetes or AIDS.

"Other countries are ahead of us in this, largely because of necessity," said Paul Meyer, Voxiva chairman and president.

In the United States, Text4baby appears to be the first such nationwide service offered for free. In announcing the service on the White House blog last week, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra dubbed the program "a historic collaboration between industry, the health community and government."

To participate, women send a text message with the word "baby" to the number 511411; Spanish speakers can text "bebe" to that same number to receive tips in that language. Messages are sent three times a week, with tips timed according to a woman's delivery date. The messages will cover topics such as nutrition, flu prevention, and treatment and immunization schedules. Text4baby messages also connect women to public clinics and support services for prenatal and infant care.

One of the service's main goals is to discourage the habits, such as alcohol and tobacco use, that put a woman at greater risk for giving birth prematurely. In the United States, one in every eight babies, or about 500,000 births, is born prematurely each year, compared with one in 18 births in Ireland and Finland.

There will be no cost to subscribers, even from mobile service providers: Wireless carriers such as AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, have agreed to waive any associated text costs.

Although there has been much attention on developing health-related "apps" for Apple's iPhone, Meyer said, simple text messages are a more powerful tool for reaching this service's most important audience, women who don't own and can't afford smartphones. It's estimated that about 90 percent of adults in the United States carry a cellphone, and "SMS" text messages work on almost all of them.

"We couldn't operate on the assumption that people had one technology or another," he said.

Meyer calls himself a "public-sector entrepreneur." Early in his career, he was a speechwriter for the Clinton administration. Later, he worked for the International Rescue Committee, where he used technology to help reunite refugee families. It was after launching a telecommunications firm in Kosovo, he said, that he saw the potential for mobile phones to be "a force for good in the world."

Meyer formed Voxiva in 2001 with two partners. The privately held firm, which employs about 150 people, has operated mobile health campaigns in Latin America, Africa and India on obesity, smoking and diabetes care. The company has launched other text-based services in the United States, but they are usually commissioned by health-care providers and offered at a cost to the patient.

As for Text4baby, users have been signing up at a rate of 250 per hour, according to the company.


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