South Africa Service Uses Text Messaging to Help Expectant Mothers
South Africa Service Uses Text Messaging to Help Expectant Mothers

JOHANNESBURG - An innovative program combining maternity advice and mobile phones is launching in South Africa, and could affect the lives of millions of mothers and babies. The service has already been launched in Bangladesh, and will soon come to India.

By 2014, there will be more phones on this planet than there are people, according to the United Nation’s telecoms agency.

That startling comparison gave birth to an idea:

Why not use mobile technology to give health information to plugged-in women, who often hold a child in one hand and a phone in the other?

The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action is doing just that with an innovative text-messaging program that sends out information about pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood. The program launched this week in South Africa and is already in use in Bangladesh. India is next.

In keeping with its simple approach, the program is known as MAMA.

The program’s appeal boils down to several simple numbers. A shocking 21 children under the age of five die every minute of largely preventable causes. Three out of four people have mobile phone access. And in South Africa, the program is free for users of two of the country’s main phone providers.

An expecting mother might receive two to three messages a week. The messages provide encouragement, warning signs and important reminders from early pregnancy through the baby’s first year.

Digital entrepreneur Gustav Praekelt heads a foundation in his name that is working on the project.

"What the MAMA global program felt is that, by providing the right information at the right time, we can radically improve the health outcomes for mothers in South Africa and other developing countries in Africa. And so how the program really works is to make that information available, for free, on every single mobile phone available to mothers in South Africa," Praekelt said.

Dr. Vivian Black says the service will give valuable knowledge to patients like hers at this university-affiliated clinic in inner-city Johannesburg.

"One of my experiences over the years is that when patients come in with knowledge, the amount of time you actually spend working with them can be much more focused on the problem at hand rather than a lot of education on things that would improve the problem at hand, but is not a critical issue at that time," Black said.

This is one of MAMA’s success stories. Nine-month old Damian’s mother, Natasha Ncube, started the program when she was pregnant. MAMA advised her to breastfeed exclusively, so she did -- and Damian is healthy and happy.

"Like they send messages like, you have to love your child, sing to him, massage your tummy, he can feel you, something like that," Ncube said.

She says she recommends the program to friends -- and so does Damian, in his own way.

His first word, after all, was "mama."