Is it possible that your mobile phone could become the missing link in a global solution for ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
At the week-long AIDS 2012 conference in Washington, participants have been discussing a wide range of potential solutions, and not surprisingly, a number of these solutions have touched on emerging strategies that use mobile phones for preventing HIV, sharing information about HIV/AIDS and reaching young members of at-risk populations. Mobile health, or mHealth, once on the fringe of how we thought about AIDS, is now entering the mainstream.
Do the math and you’ll see why mobile phones are so important in ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic. They are simply one of the most effective ways for health-care workers to reach large populations in resource-poor areas at little or no cost. Nearly 7 in 10 AIDS victims reside in Africa, a place where twenty years ago, the mobile phone was a luxury. Today, the mobile phone has become so ubiquitous that the continent is among the largest mobile markets in the world, with 600 million mobile phone users. That makes the mobile phone one of the best ways — if not the best way — to improve the effectiveness of outreach efforts by local health workers and empower thousands of young people in Africa.
Most encouragingly, mobile health success stories related to HIV/AIDS — many of them within Africa — are starting to proliferate. There is a growing belief that mobile phones can be used to turn the tide on HIV/AIDS. Kenya has had success in using SMS-based messaging to monitor and support antiretroviral therapy, while Rwanda has used mobile phones as a way to disseminate drug and patient information to a wider audience. The Grameen Foundation, best known for its micro-lending initiatives within emerging markets, is now working on a mobile health initiative within emerging markets to reach HIV/AIDS populations.
Does that mean that we’re at a potential turning point in the fight against HIV/AIDS? Bill Gates, a keynote speaker at this year's AIDS 2012 as well as last year’s mHealth Summit, certainly thinks so. Medical professionals and NGO leaders are already starting to see how mobile health innovations can lead to new breakthroughs in the fight against HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé recently commented that mobile phones are a new weapon in the fight against AIDS: “The potential of social media and mobile technologies to re-energize the AIDS movement is clear. We need nothing less than an HIV prevention revolution, with social media and mobile technology at its core.”
Even though many may feel that the United States is no longer the global leader in the effort to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the U.S. can still lead when it comes to creating, promoting and distributing new mobile technologies. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), for example, recently redesigned its AIDS.gov Web site to make it mobile-friendly. This doesn’t mean you’ll be able to download an app that will cure AIDS, but it does mean that health-care providers may be using mobile phones to track adherence to medication regimes, follow up with patients in remote areas, collect treatment data, or send messages to patients about prevention measures. The solution, as the saying goes, is in the palm of our hands. We just need to pick up the phone and answer the call.
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