Using Mobile Technologies to Eliminate Pediatric HIV: Evidence the Future is Bright for mHealth

Senior Medical Research Officer Seble Kassaye and EGPAF/Kenya Technical Advisor John Ong'ech at AIDS 2012.


Mobile health technology (mHealth) is a pretty hefty topic to delve into at 7 a.m., but this morning’s mHealth presentation at IAS – sponsored by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, mHealth Alliance, and Johnson & Johnson – provided encouraging insight into how mobile technology can positively affect pediatric HIV work.

Several studies over the past few years have highlighted the impact of mHealth on pediatric HIV, which were cited by William Philbrick, consultant with the mHealth Alliance. Findings showed that when receiving SMS (short message service) messages and reminders, women were more likely to attend antenatal visits – one study showed this increased by as much as 25 percent through the use of mobile phones. Additionally, women were 57 percent more likely to adhere to HIV treatment when receiving SMS reminders and health information. Other areas in which SMS messaging has improved outcomes are exclusive breastfeeding, stigma, and water and sanitation.

EGPAF’s Seble Kassaye described a pilot study in Kenya to address the high prevalence of HIV in Nyanza Province. Kenya was a good test case, as 63 percent of Kenyan households have mobile phones. Mobile phone technology was used to reinforce key messages for women and men around maternal and child health, exclusive breastfeeding, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and male involvement. An important point to note about the messages is that they were HIV-neutral; some women and men share mobile phones with others, so neutral messaging was important to protect study participants from stigma. Despite positive feedback from the study such as increases in exclusive breastfeeding among women who received the messages, barriers still hinder the full effectiveness of mHealth, particularly fear of stigma.

Merrick Schaefer of UNICEF illustrated Programme Mwana, a project that has now been scaled up nationally in Malawi and Zambia to decrease turnaround time for clients to receive HIV test results, and to manage health systems in real time. The program consists of two components: Results160, which is focused on health systems and targets clinic staff; and RemindMi, a community-focused application that helps community health workers follow up with and report on client health status through SMS. Results160 allows clinic staff to alert central laboratories through SMS that samples have been sent for testing; in return, laboratories send electronic test results to clinic staff, which are sent to clients (confidentiality is preserved through PINs). RemindMi alerts community health workers to follow up with clients around child births, clinic visits, and adherence to medications.

Overall, the future seems bright for mHealth interventions, although some issues, like stigma, need to be addressed for optimal effectiveness in the long run.