Mobile phones impacting health care in Africa

A little over a decade ago there were around 100,000 phone lines in Nigeria, mostly landlines run by the state-owned telecoms behemoth, NITEL. Today NITEL is dead, and Nigeria has close to 100 million mobile phone lines, making it Africa’s largest telecoms market.

Across the rest of the continent the trends are similar: between 2000 and 2010, Kenyan mobile phone firm Safaricom saw its subscriber base increase in excess of 500-fold. In 2010 alone the number of mobile phone users in Rwanda grew by 50 per cent, figures from the country’s regulatory agency show.

Amongst the ways lives are changing as a result: A simple text-messaging solution was all 28-year-old Ghanaian doctoral student, Bright Simons needed for his innovative plan to tackle counterfeit medicine in African countries. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 30% of drugs supplied in developing countries are fake. (In 2009, nearly 100 Nigerian babies died after they were given teething medicine that contained a solvent usually found in antifreeze.)

Simons’ pioneering idea was to put unique codes within scratch cards on medicine packaging that buyers can send via SMS to a designated number to find out if the drug is genuine or not. The system is now being used by several countries in Africa and rolled out to places such as Asia where there are similar problems with counterfeit drugs.

In South Africa there’s Impilo, a service that allows people to find healthcare providers anywhere in the country 24 hours a day, using their mobile phones.

Mobile phones are going to play an increasingly important role in mediating the provision of better healthcare to the citizens of African countries. Phone companies are realizing that mobiles are highly effective — and potentially lucrative — for the dissemination of health and lifestyle tips.

 

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