Health Tips On Your Cellphone

Friday, February 24, 2006

While the youth are said to be keeping away from unfriendly HIV testing centres, an innovative local marketer has put these information literally on their fingertips – in mobile phones.

A service started two months ago – Interactive Healthcare Solutions – and which has already won a prestigious British award is proving popular especially with teenagers enquiring on issues to do with venereal diseases, smoking, drinking, and drug abuse.

Initial statistics make interesting reading. Over 420 people have managed to call and listen to the health information being offered most of them aged between 15 and 25 and are residents of either Nairobi or Mombasa.

The statistics also show that majority of the callers are women who are interested in knowing more about sexual health issues. While men who have called so far are interested in issues to do with drinking habits.

The 24-hour-service, the first of its kind in East and Central Africa, offers information not only in English and Kiswahili, but also in vernacular languages like Kikuyu, Kamba, Luhya and Luo.

The service is now aiding adolescents and adults alike get answers, in confidence and privacy, to questions they fear asking their parents, healthcare providers or peers.

Issues considered controversial and improper such as sex, condoms, and venereal diseases, can now be answered just at the press of the button. With the service, callers are able to tell what is ailing them even before consulting a doctor.

Paddy Mwangi, who developed the programme for his masters degree thesis at the University of the West of England in the UK, says he decided to put his theory into practice after it won an award and a lot of accolades from Worshipful Company Marketors of London.

According to 24-year-old Mwangi, the idea, which he patented last year, is likely to benefit many Kenyans, especially the youth, who fear consulting hospitals or dispensaries when infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Or those having drinking, smoking or drug abuse problems.

“Using this service a person can do self diagnoses by just listening to the information being provided. This empowers one to take appropriate steps.”

However, he is quick to add that they also tell their clients that they are not a medical helpline, and their information should not be used as a basis for self-medication. Consequently, they request those affected to seek further medical help from an expert. All one is supposed to do is dial a number corresponding to the type of disease or condition he or she wants information about. Each call is charged at Sh 5 per minute.

Once the number is dialled, one is directed on how to access this information in any of their languages of choice. Each of the diseases or habits such as drinking or drug abuse has been assigned its own number.

On sexual health category, for instance, information on gonorrhoea, syphilis, genital herpes, condom and its usage, and emergency contraceptives, is provided in both English and Kiswahili and the four vernacular languages.

If a person wants to know about sexually transmitted infections, he or she will dial 0900-331-101 and all the STI’s, including HIV will be listed.

On getting access the client is welcomed into an interactive discussion between a patient and a doctor, with the latter answering questions raised by the former on the causes, symptoms, and management of the disease.

At the end of the conversation, the caller is asked to provide information about his or her age, sex and locality.

These features help to reroute the callers to appropriate sites and centres within their localities where they can get further medical assistance. There is a feedback provision where callers can ask intimate questions, and get answers within 48 hours.

A similar procedure is applied for those calling Drinking Helpline (0900-331-103), Smoking Helpline (0900-331-102), and Drugs Helpline (0900-331-104).

These help lines are designed to empower those having drinking, smoking and drug abuse problems with information on how to stop and where to seek further professional assistance.

But it has not been bread and butter for Mwangi to get this far.

“The most painstaking aspect was to collect the critical information on the diseases and habits, and then put them in simpler forms,” says Mwangi.

But the hard part was yet to come. Translating the information, especially scientific names into different vernaculars became costly and almost a nightmare. Every single word translated cost him nine shillings.

“Sometimes we had to repeat the translation three to four times to get the right meaning of the word in Kiswahili or the other languages,” he says.

He estimates the total cost of operationalising the idea to be over six million shillings. “My father, Dennis Mwangi, has given me both moral and financial support that has seen me get this far,” say Mwangi, a first born in a family of three children.

The next step, he says, was to present the idea to Safaricom, Celtel and Telkom to see if they could buy into it and agree to host it.

Source: African Woman and Child Feature Service (Nairobi), Arthur Okwemba (link opens in a new window)