World AIDS Day: Mobile Messaging Limits Mother-to-Child Transmission

For pregnant women around the world, a healthy pregnancy thrives first on information. From what to eat, to what are normal signs of pregnancy, to how a baby grows and develops inside the womb - these messages, the knowledge they impart to an expectant mother, the confidence they bring to her, and the actions that result lead to a safe pregnancy and a healthy mother and baby. And when that information includes warning signs, breast-feeding best practices, and vaccination reminders - it can save lives.

The quality of this information takes on special meaning for a pregnant woman living with HIV because her dreams are tempered with fears. She knows she may potentially transmit a deadly virus to her child--and without medical intervention, up to 40 percent of women will. And she realizes that she also has power, because with the right medical care during pregnancy, mother-to-child transmission of HIV is almost entirely preventable. To keep her baby healthy, every pregnant woman with HIV needs accurate, timely, and culturally sensitive health information, and consistent support to encourage her to act on it.

Mobile phones are now making that possible in ways that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. The growth of mobile phone connections in some parts of the developing world actually outpaces the availability of health services. In remote or impoverished regions where prenatal care may be inadequate or distant, expectant mothers can receive messages on their cell phones. Last year, to accelerate the ability of organizations to provide this mobile phone messaging resource, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) made messages that are timed to the stage of their pregnancies or age of their babies freely available. The uptake was tremendous. More than 100 organizations in 40 countries have accessed and adapted these messages reaching potentially millions of new and expectant mothers with customized text or voice messages via mobile phones.

Starting today, MAMA will offer a new set of messages to organizations working in the frontlines of eliminating mother-to-child transmission. Together with an advisory board of health experts, BabyCenter, a member of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies, customized these messages for pregnant women living with HIV - like when to take antiretroviral medication during pregnancy, when to seek care during delivery to reduce the chance of HIV transmission, how to safely breastfeed, and when to take the baby to be tested for HIV. Along with health information, the messages will offer support and encouragement - reminding these expectant and new mothers that they can have healthy children, that they can remain well to care for their families and that they are not alone. These messages can be a critical lifeline for a pregnant woman living with HIV who may not be able to walk several miles to a support group at her clinic during the last weeks of pregnancy, who faces intense stigma in her community, whose family may not know she has HIV. Messages coming to her personal cell phone are personalized, discreet, consistent, and most important, come from a trusted source.

Getting these messages to mothers will require organizations to download and access these messages and deliver them to the women they serve - and I'm optimistic given the number of organizations who are adapting the more general messages MAMA made available last year.

As HIV services expand to places that need them most, mobile phones can play a unique role in empowering the nearly 1.5 million women living with HIV who give birth each year, accelerating us to the goal of eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015 and keeping mothers with HIV alive. By making timely, relevant, lifesaving information available through text and voice messages on mobile phones, we give expectant and new mothers the power to care for themselves and their families and to eradicate pediatric AIDS.

Mitch Besser, MD is the founder of mothers2mothers and serves on the MAMA Medical Advisory Board. MAMA is a public private partnership with USAID, Johnson & Johnson, United Nations Foundation, mHealth Alliance, and Baby Center.

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