Tanzania's free SMS health campaign helps pregnant women, new mothers

by Thomson Reuters Foundation | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 29 July 2015 11:14 GMT

Women and their children visit a clinic at Sinza Health Centre in Tanzania's capital Dar es Salaam May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Emmanuel Kwitema

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Tanzania harnesses mobile phone technology to boost care of mothers and newborns via text message

By Kizito Makoye

DAR ES SALAAM, July 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Halima Rahim became a mother for the first time, friends and acquaintances in Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar Es Salaam, were quick to offer advice and help.

Had Rahim listened to them, she would have raised her baby on porridge rather than breast milk, not realising the risk to her daughter's health.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), infants who are partly breastfed or not breastfed at all may face a higher risk of death from diarrhoea and other infections.

The global health body recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant's life. Breast milk not only protects newborn babies from infection, it also lowers mortality among malnourished children.

Luckily, Rahim knew better than her well-meaning friends, having signed up to receive text messages on staying healthy during pregnancy and after giving birth as part of a government campaign to improve maternal and newborn health in the east African country.

"Some people were telling me breast milk is not enough for the baby, they even advised me to give my baby porridge so that she doesn't feel hungry. They were wrong," Rahim, 28, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Mbagala, a sprawling suburb known for its dilapidated drainage systems and clogged roads.

Since the campaign, Wazazi Nipendeni, "Parents Love Me" in Swahili, was introduced three years ago, some 125,000 pregnant women have registered for the free text messages.

More than 5 million text messages have been sent to subscribers, who get health information and reminders for doctor's appointments direct to their mobile phones - many of them in distant parts of Tanzania.

HARNESSING TECHNOLOGY

Mobile phone technology in Tanzania, as in other parts of Africa, has proved a powerful tool in reaching the most remote populations.

With 25 million subscribers, the country has the highest rate of text messages sent per month in east Africa, according to the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority, a government agency overseeing the communications sector.

Tanzania has made some progress in preventing deaths from complications related to childbirth, but has failed to meet a Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal deaths to 193 per 100,000 live births from 454 per 100,000 by the end of 2015.

The government has blamed the failure on a shortage of skilled health workers and well-equipped clinics, the impact of HIV/AIDS, a lack of funding and poor awareness of reproductive health issues among women.

Adelika Kessy almost died giving birth three years ago after developing anaemia a few weeks earlier. A lack of awareness meant she did not have routine check-ups.

"I was feeling tired and weak. It happened so suddenly and I didn't know what do," Kessy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I was too weak to give birth naturally, even after undergoing several blood transfusions. In the end, the doctors decided to carry out a Caesarean section."

The 36-year-old housewife is now expecting her third child, and relies on SMS reminders about her clinic appointments.

Pamela Kweka, an official from the Tanzania Communication and Development Center, which is also involved in the campaign, said Wazazi Nipendeni initially targeted pregnant women but has expanded to include men, midwives and nurses.

"We have realised that engaging women alone is not enough. We need to involve all members of the society to make the campaign more effective," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

(Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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