New service uses mobile phones to reduce maternal mortality

by Lisa Anderson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 2 October 2013 10:29 GMT

A six-months pregnant woman who survived flooding holds her child on a stretcher while waiting to be evacuated in New Bataan town, Compostela Valley, southern Philippines December 6, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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Mobile phones connect expectant and new mothers to life-saving information through text and voice messages, aiming to reduce the number of women who die in pregnancy and childbirth, and lower the child mortality rate too.

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation)—For many rural expectant and new mothers, health care providers may be far away, but new technology is bringing them close through the mobile phone, now almost ubiquitous even in the poorest corners of the world.

This could save many of the 800 women a day who die of preventable problems related to pregnancy and childbirth, most of them in developing countries. Growing evidence indicates that many of these deaths could be avoided through better information and access to skilled birth attendants - or urgent care helped by the use of mobile phones and messaging services.

Mobile technology also can assist a new mother by providing information geared to the exact age of her child through its first year of life. This is a way to reduce child mortality which – though much lower than in 1990 – still runs at 18,000 under-five-year-olds a day. Sub-Saharan Africa has shown the least progress in reducing the number of deaths of infants in the first month of life. 

Access to information and communications technology (ICT) is not a problem in most of the developing world. Mobile phone networks now cover 96 percent of the world's population, with 77 percent of the subscriptions held by nearly 90 percent of the population in low and middle-income countries.  Even in places where electricity is in short supply, mobile phone users charge their phones through batteries, solar power and charging stations at rural stores, and are regular users.

As a result, services offering mobile health care information are proliferating.  The newest, Zero Mothers Die,  launched its service last week to improve maternal, newborn and child health by providing pregnant  women and new mothers with mobile health information.  

A global partnership between Advanced Development for Africa Foundation (ADA); Millennia 2025 Foundation, UNAIDS, telecommunications firm Airtel and UniversalDoctor,  Zero Mothers Die aims to reduce maternal mortality and health complications, and accelerate mobile phone ownership and use by at-risk pregnant women in rural areas and the education of community health care workers.

“We don’t want to just reduce the number of women who are dying, but reduce it to zero through mobile phones,” Coumba Touré, founder and president of Advanced Development for Africa Foundation, said at the Women Leaders Forum: Connecting Women’s Health and Girls’ Education for Scalable and Sustainable Development, a side event last week during the start of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Zero Mothers Die will launch a pilot program in Ghana in the next year, with the following components.

  • MumHealth, a mobile system, will deliver information on maternal and child health via twice-weekly text and voice messages in local languages and is designed by Universal Doctor to overcome illiteracy and other potential barriers.
  • Provision of 100,000 mobile phones per year preloaded with a set amount of free minutes to women during their fourth month of pregnancy. To take part, women have to register their pregnancy with the nearest health care center or provider and commit to at least four prenatal visits with a health care provider, who will be able to communicate with them directly via the mobile phones.
  • Provision of 36 million minutes per year of free airtime. Each pregnant woman’s mobile phone will be allotted 30 minutes per month of free airtime restricted to calling health care providers or facilities.  Women are free to buy additional minutes for their own use and can keep the phone once their child is one year old.
  • Education and capacity-building of health care workers, who will receive tablet computers preloaded with educational content produced by UniversalDoctor in up to four local languages.
  • Access to skilled birth attendants.  Expectant mothers will build a mobile saving account over time to finance attended childbirth, a key factor in safe births. Lack of money is cited as a major barrier to women using skilled birth attendants at birth and for post-partum care.
  • Financial empowerment for at-risk pregnant women via solar power business generation.  Through a unique solar charger provided through the program, women can not only charge their own phones but earn money by charging other people’s mobile phones in their community.

“Zambia is really poised to work with Zero Mothers Die,” Christine Kaseba-Sata, first lady of Zambia and an obstetrician-gynaecologist, told the Women Leaders Forum.

 She noted that Zambia already uses ICT to take digital photos of women’s cervixes, upload them onto computers and send them to remote doctors to review for possible problems.

Other ICT programs related to women’s health include:

the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), a two-year-old global public-private partnership that sends text and voice messages to women in 60 countries;

mHealth Alliance, hosted by the United Nations Foundation, which champions mobile technologies to improve health;

the UniversalWomen Project, a joint venture between UniversalDoctor and the Millennia 2025 Foundation, which has developed products like UniversalWomen Speaker, a mobile and web tool that allows women and health care providers to communicate by providing multilingual translations of medical terms related to pregnancy, childbirth and other maternal health issues.

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