MAMA Knows Best

This Mother's Day, paying your taxes never felt so great.

As Americans gather on Sunday to honor our mamas, we should also be celebrating "MAMA," a new global health initiative launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, is an innovative partnership co-founded by USAID -- who invests your tax dollars in foreign assistance programs -- and mom-friendly corporate collaborator Johnson & Johnson.

MAMA's three-year goal is straightforward: to provide a low-cost, highly-accessible mobile phone communication system for mothers in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa to improve maternal and newborn health outcomes. Participating mothers register themselves and their unborn children -- via mobile phone -- into a system that will then send out automated SMS or voice messages packed with relevant health information, tailored to the mother's pregnancy stage and baby's age.

The first-glance excitement here is the mobile connectivity that simply did not exist even five years past. "More people around the world now have access to mobile phones than toilets," says Maura O'Neill, Chief Innovation Officer at USAID, emphasizing that "Smart foreign policy must increasingly take advantage of mobile." And she's got a great point: the ITU estimates that by the end of 2010 there will be over 5.3 billion mobile subscriptions in the world, with more than 90 percent of the global population enjoying access to a mobile network.

Only 60 percent currently have access to proper sanitation.

And the excitement is palpable beyond U.S. public spending on mobile health (mHealth) solutions, as evidenced by MAMA's supporting partner The UN Foundation (UNF) which launched a $30 million mHealth-focused initiative in 2005. Jennifer Potts, Director of the Maternal & Newborn mHealth Initiative at UNF, confirms that, "The rise in mobile phone ownership presents a tremendous opportunity to improve access to health information and services for pregnant women and mothers around the world."

The immense potential of interventions like MAMA have already been demonstrated by efforts like MOTECH, or Mobile Technology for Community Health, a program of the Grameen Foundation in Ghana. In 2008, Grameen identified many maternal health obstacles to be communications-based, their report citing, "a lack of accurate health information for women, damaging health practices endorsed by traditional beliefs and myths, low demand for and low awareness of the importance of critical care services, patchy delivery of postnatal care, and onerous paper-based systems in health facilities that take workers away from patients and obstruct patient follow up."

Since then, MoTECH has impressively registered over 6,500 women and children under the age of five - that's 70 percent of parents in the Kasena Nankana District, in one of the poorest and most remote parts of the country. Parents get up to three voice messages per week (99 percent of users opting for voice instead of SMS), and messages are time-specific, contain important, evidence-based health information, and are even geo-customized into local languages and to address local health myths.

"It's so important to help mothers, because they work so hard and invest so much in the future of their children," explains Tim Wood of the Grameen Foundation. And indeed, empowering mothers is the right place to start. But it's not the end of the road.


mHealth is a thrilling prospect, to say the least. But it is important to notice here that O'Neill, Potts, and Wood are hailing far more than an initial hype over mobile network ubiquity.

The fast-approaching 2015 finish line for the Millennium Development Goals has recently made clear that while some mothers have benefited from health system advances of years past, many pregnant patients still face poor infrastructure, unreliable roads, and far-off, under-staffed, or under-supplied facilities -- and will continue to, past 2015.

The beauty of mobile is therefore not merely as a new input to health systems, but as a transformative force that fundamentally and uniquely increases the impact of complementary investments. After all -- MAMA cannot improve maternal health outcomes in isolation. Information alone, even if timely and accurate, is of limited use if a poor supply chain means no vaccines are available, or if not enough trained health workers are available to provide antenatal care.

And so it's not just MAMA who we should celebrate today, but other USAID programs like the DELIVER supply chain management project, or Pakistan's innovative Lady Health Workers program, or the many applications searchable in the mHealth Alliance's HealthUnBound database.

So keep paying your taxes, keep pushing your representatives to increase our national foreign aid budget - it stood below a paltry 1 percent in 2010 (surprised?) -- and above all, keep MAMA in mind.

All the innovation and potential for change that she represents is truly something special to celebrate today -- and every day!

This post was originally published 05/08/2011 but is being re-featured for Huff Post Global Motherhood.