A new solution developed by IBM, Novartis and Vodafone with the Roll Back Malaria Partnership is helping to save lives using everyday technology to improve the availability of anti-malarial drugs in remote areas of Tanzania.
Called "SMS for Life", the initiative uses a combination of mobile phones, SMS (Short Messaging Service) technologies and intuitive web sites to track and manage the supply of Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy (ACT) drugs and Quinine injectables, both of which are key to reducing the number of deaths from malaria.
The mosquito-borne disease causes nearly 1-million deaths in Africa each year, mostly among pregnant women and young children, and many people die because they simply lack quick access to vital medication.
The concept of using text messaging to improve stock management of lifesaving medicines was developed by pharmaceutical company Novartis and a team of international students taking part in IBM's internship programme, Extreme Blue. The team came up with SMS for Life, as it relies on simple technology and fosters self-sufficiency. IBM was tasked with managing the overall project, and Vodafone was invited to develop and manage a system based on simple SMS messaging that would help ensure dispensaries did not run out of vital stock.
After visits to clinics, hospitals and dispensaries across Tanzania, IBM, Novartis and Vodafone initiated a five-month pilot of the SMS for Life solution, covering 135 villages and over 1-million people in different geographic locations across Tanzania.
Vodafone, together with its technology partner MatsSoft, developed a system in which healthcare staff at each facility receive automated SMS messages, which prompt them to check the remaining stock of anti-malarial drugs each week. Using toll-free numbers, staff reply with an SMS to a central database system hosted in the UK, providing details of stock levels, and deliveries can be made before supplies run out at local health centres.
“This is an example of a truly innovative solution helping solve a humanitarian problem,” says Peter Ward SMS for Life Project Manager at IBM. "After spending time on the ground, we created a project plan, developed the application with Vodafone and Novartis and established the best way to deliver the pilot, working with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health. We expect other countries will also be able to benefit in the future.”
Dr Dianne Sullivan, scientific adviser" mobile health at Vodafone, adds: “Vodafone has worked closely with IBM, Novartis and MatsSoft, to develop a simple, robust and innovative system that is able to deliver even in the most remote African communities. The SMS for Life solution shows the tremendous potential of mobile technology to deliver social good through lateral thinking by helping to ensure supplies of life-saving drugs.”
During the first few weeks of the pilot, the number of health facilities with stock-outs in one district alone, was reduced by over 75%. The early success of the SMS for Life pilot project has the Tanzanian authorities interested in implementing the solution across the rest of the country. Tanzania has around 5000 clinics, hospitals and dispensaries, but at any one time, as many as half could potentially be out of stock of anti-malarial drugs.
“The SMS for Life programme has already had a positive effect in Tanzania,” says Winfred Mwafongo, senior health officer with the Ministry of Health & Social Welfare in Tanzania. “I've seen district medical officers ordering urgent stock replacements for various health facilities. During a visit to 19 rural health facilities in one district alone, I saw huge improvements in their inventory management systems. I'm very impressed with the results so far and look forward to following the rest of the pilot through to completion."
“Collaboration is critical to tackle health problems of the developing world, and we are proud to be part of the SMS for Life partnership, a project that will reduce stock-outs, and ensure that mothers and their young children in Africa have access to life-saving anti-malarial medicines,” says Silvio Gabriel, executive vice-president and head of Malaria Initiatives at Novartis.
Designed as a public and private partnership leveraging the skills and resources of several companies, SMS for Life could have far-reaching implications for existing health systems worldwide. Several other African states are already keen to introduce the project.