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Mobile Technology Reducing Cameroon's Maternal, Child Deaths

Gifted Mom introduced to pregnant women in Bafut, north western Cameroon. (Moki Edwin Kindzeka for VOA News)

Cameroon is experimenting with an automated message service to reduce the number of deaths of pregnant women and infants in Cameroon due to lack of information on antenatal care. The service "GiftedMom" created by Alain Nteff uses mobile phones to remind pregnant women when to come for antenatal care and alert mothers on vaccination schedules for their infants.

According to Cameroon's Ministry of Public Health, 8,000 pregnant women and 30,000 babies die each year in Cameroon, a central African nation with a population of about 22 million people.

Dr. Alice Nkwain of Cameroon's Ministry of Public Health says many of those fatalities could be avoided with the proper antenatal care.

"Unfortunately, the figures have been rising. It is a very serious matter," she said. "We could say that it is more severe during pregnancy because most of the time the mother and child would die if appropriate care is not given immediately, and we minimize the importance of attending antenatal clinic."

Fighting old habits

Midwife Christina Ngwa says the main problem is that many women neglect antenatal care and some even prefer to deliver at home with the assistance of untrained traditional birth attendants.

"Some of them come like that but at the end they don't usually follow the clinic very well," she said. "Most of the time you ask them, the appointment you gave, you do not follow it, but they go and come on their own day telling you they went for funerals, my husband did not give me money or I did not have enough money to come."

It is to reduce such avoidable deaths that Alain Nteff started "GiftedMom," a service using automated SMS and voice messages via mobile phones to remind pregnant women when to come for antenatal care and alert new mothers about vaccination schedules for their babies.

Nteff says the idea for the service came to him four years ago, when he was 19 years old. He conducted a study that indicated women who had complications during pregnancy often came late for antenatal care, and the complications are discovered late when it is difficult to treat them. He says he then went to work to find out how to get women to come early to the hospitals so that problems could be spotted early, diagnosed and then treated.

Turning to new technologies

"We noticed that there were more mobile phones in rural areas than TV sets and so we decided to use mobile phones to educate pregnant women on when to come for antenatal care, and also tell them why they should come for antenatal care, and also alert mothers with babies on when to bring their babies for the next vaccination session," she said.

Nteff says they began working with non governmental organizations and hospitals collecting telephone numbers of all pregnant women to inform them on what to do. He says the first difficulty they faced was that many women in rural areas of Cameroon do not understand Cameroon's official languages, English and French, and some could neither read nor write. So he used "pidgin English" for many of the messages.

Housewife Caroline Neba says "GiftedMom" has saved the lives of many women in her Bafut village in northwestern Cameroon. She says men should be included in Nteff's project because lots of them in rural areas are still ignorant of the importance of antenatal care.

Nteff says he expects to help reduce the number of Cameroonian women who die during child birth and the number of babies who die at birth by at least 70 percent in five years.

"The final goal of the project is by 2020 we should have drastically reduced the alarming rate of maternal and infant deaths in the country," he said. "We are also calling on banks, nutrition companies, may be accessory companies for their corporate social responsibility in order to drive this project across Cameroon."

Nteff's effort through "GiftedMom" to potentially save thousands of lives in the years to come has earned him the Queen of England's "Young Leader Award" and the South African "Anzisha Prize" organized by the Master Card foundation. He has also received a number of awards from Cameroon's Ministries of Youth Affairs and Health.