In an effort to contain Ebola, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has teamed up with a local cell-phone provider and the Sierra Leonean government to send health reminders via text message. Since the Ebola outbreak began last April, the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) system has sent out about two million text messages a month in Sierra Leone, reminding people to seek treatment early, avoid physical contact with others and not resist the efforts of community healthcare workers. The texts are delivered free so there’s no financial burden to the recipient.
Texting isn’t the only technology being used to combat Ebola. In West Africa, Twitter was abuzz with health tips and reassurance.
In countries where Internet access is not ubiquitous, cell phones play a vital role in communicating messages directly to a mass audience during health and other crises. Sixty-nine percent of Sierra Leoneans have a cell phone connection, but only 9 percent have a 3G or cellular Internet plan.
“Every mobile phone can do text messaging,” says Ken Banks, mobile technologist and founder of kiwanja.net, a project that unites cellular technology with social change. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the cheapest model or the most expensive.”
The interactivity is appealing. Recipients can text back with basic questions about Ebola and get an automated response with information about treatment options, cleaning tips and medical help. And since the texts are sent to specific areas of the country, the messages, which are drafted by the IFRC and the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Health, can be personalized with regional advice.
Even though the country has low literacy rates — 43 percent for adults — text-based services are effective ways to disseminate information. “In villages where there is low literacy, there might only be a few people with cell phones who can read these messages,” says Christine Tokar, West Africa programs manager for the British Red Cross. Tokar says those who can read share the information with the town crier, who would distribute it through town meetings.
The texts are intended to reinforce similar messages delivered via posters, radio and television ads. But a text can be preserved on the phone, shown to a friend and referenced later — say, when Ebola comes to a previously unaffected area.
The Red Cross is hoping to have TERA up and running in 40 countries across the globe in the next five years.