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Mobile Phones May Bring Better Healthcare to Poor Countries

A new initiative has been launched to use mobile and computer technology to improvehealthcare in the developing world. The announcement was made at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, being attended by some 50,000 people.

Three of the world's leading foundations are joining forces to form the Mobile Health Alliance or mHealth for short. The Rockefeller, Vodafone and United Nations Foundations say they want to harness the benefits of mobile technology in both social and economic terms.

Claire Thwaites, head of the United Nations and Vodafone Technology Partnership, describes mobile technology as pervasive, especially cell phones.

"We're seeing penetration reach 2.2 billion customers in emerging markets. We look at the level of PC personal computers) penetration, that's at 305 million PCs in the developing world," she says.

She says the technology has many health applications.

"So, you might be looking at text messaging to improve population awareness about malaria prevention or how to prevent HIV/AIDS. What precautionary measures need to be taken. Or you could use mobile to support public health data collection campaigns or immunization campaigns. Then you get to more sophisticated uses of mobile to support consultation and remote diagnosis, as well as being able to communicate with health workers, which there's a huge lack of in the developing world," she says.

For example, Uganda is using mobile phones to raise awareness about a major health issue.

"In Uganda, there is a program called Text for Change, that's informing the population about preventative measures to avoid HIV/AIDS, what precautions do they need to take. And what we've seen through that program is a 40 percent increase in people taking HIV tests," she says.

Thwaites says such a system could be used to help deal with the ongoing cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe. What's more, she says mobile and computer technology could be used to help reach the Millennium Development Goals regarding maternal and child mortality and such diseases as HIV/AIDS, malaria, polio and measles.

The Mobile Health Alliance is expected to host a large conference by year's end, inviting both the private and public sector to join the effort.