UGANDA: Using mobile phones to fight HIV

Photo: Keishamaza Rukikaire/IRIN
The pilot targeted 15,000 mobile phone users in western Uganda
Kampala, 4 September 2008 (PlusNews) - Uganda's rising HIV prevalence is forcing policy makers to look for inventive ways of educating people about the virus. Their latest tool is mobile phone technology, whose rapid growth has provided an avenue that could potentially reach millions with messages.

Text to Change (TTC) , an NGO that uses a bulk short message service (SMS) platform for HIV/AIDS education, recently partnered with the AIDS Information Centre in Uganda (AIC)  and Celtel, a local mobile phone network, to pilot a project in western Uganda aimed at communicating knowledge about the disease and encouraging subscribers to volunteer for HIV testing.

The Uganda Communications Commission expects the number of mobile phone users to hit the six million mark by the end of 2008. In urban areas, as many as 50 percent of people have mobile phones, compared to 10 percent in rural areas, according to the 2006 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (DHS).

Knowledge levels are often very low; the DHS found that while almost everyone had heard of HIV/AIDS, only about 30 percent of women and 40 percent of men had comprehensive knowledge.

TTC launched the pilot programme on Valentine's Day and ran it for the next six to eight weeks with the slogan, "Don't guess the answers, learn the truth about AIDS".

The organisation chose a list of 15,000 Celtel subscribers in Mbarara district in southwestern Uganda and sent them an introductory SMS asking if they would like to participate in a free interactive quiz about HIV, with the incentive of handsets and airtime as rewards for correct answers.

A question was sent each week; if the recipient answered correctly, a confirmation SMS was sent, and if he or she answered incorrectly, a rectifying message was sent. Questions included: "What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?", "How is HIV transmitted?", "Have you ever tested for HIV?"

About 2,500 of the 15,000 subscribers contacted responded to each question. At the end of the trial period of questions and answers, participants were encouraged to go for HIV testing.

According to Robert Natlaka, AIC's representative, requests at their central Mbarara facility rose by 100 percent over the pilot's six-week duration. "About 255 [participants] turned up to AIC in Mbarara for testing; some others also went to AIC partners [around] the district."

Only 15 percent of rural women and 11 percent of rural men know their HIV status. After reaching a low of six percent in 2003, Uganda's HIV prevalence has had a slight upturn and now stands at 6.7 percent.

Bas Hoefman, the public relations officer at TTC, felt that more people would respond if the questions were written in local languages, and there was better sensitisation and awareness of the campaign. TTC plans to expand the programme to other districts in the next year.


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

Other OCHA Sites
United Nations - OCHA
DFID - UK Department for International Development
Irish Aid
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation - SDC