Using Cell-Phones to Fight HIV/Aids in Zambia
BY GETHSEMANE MWIZABI(The Times of Zambia):
Young people in Zambia and all across the world, live in a time of unprecedented expansion of mobile phone technology. With the number of mobile phone subscriptions that has outpassed the global population, this generation has more access to mobile phone, social media, and internet than any other generation before.
The rise in mobile phone usage among young people serves as an opportunity to reach them with life-saving information, such as how to protect themselves from HIV infection.
This is good news given the low levels of knowledge among young people, such as those in schools.
Over the years, significant strides have been made by the Government and other stakeholders to ensure that young people receive comprehensive life skills and sexuality education.
However, comprehensive HIV knowledge among young people in Zambia still remains low- at around 40 per cent.
It is even lower among girls compared to boys. Transfer of comprehensive HIV information from teachers to learners remains a major challenge, and the availability of youth resource centres remains limited.
Hence, innovative approaches are needed to narrow the HIV knowledge gap in this “digital” generation, in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.
Evidence indicates a need for creative ways to cater for the needs of the young people to reach them out with information.
In this context, new technologies such as SMS and internet have the potential to reach them with information, which can address their key concerns and dispel ignorance, rumour, and misinformation about HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support.
This can then help them to make informed choices to go for available services on HIV and related issues
Use of SMS (SMS) has been proven to be an effective strategy for continuous, low cost, and individualised HIV and STI education, and for broader health promotion, resulting in increased level of knowledge, and adoption for safer reproductive health and sexual behaviours such as reduction in multiple concurrent sexual partners, increased up-take of condom use, and up-take of STI/HIV tests etc.
It is for this reason then that the National AIDS Council (NAC) with the support from UNICEF designed an innovative SMS platform -Zambia U-Report- for young people.
Zambia U-Report is an innovative SMS based HIV Prevention programme targeting young people.
The platform provides individualised and real-time 24hours education and counselling services on HIV, STI to adolescents and young people in a manner that respects their privacy, through SMS using the short code “878” to join.
Results from polls would inform policy and programmatic decisions, and guide targeted behavioural change campaigns that will integrate SMS as one important tool.
Since its launch last year in December, the U-report has been providing a platform for youths as they take a more central role in shaping the national HIV response at individual and community levels through regular opinions polls on HIV and STI related issues using SMS.
24-year-old Jack Kafwanka from Ndola says the programme has given him power to implement change for an HIV free Zambia.
“I am happy that the programme ensures privacy which enables me to be free to ask anything, clear my mind and empower myself on issues of HIV and STIs in turn, this makes me a young walking breathing mobile knowledge bank helping me to cash out information and provide answers to my peers on pressing issues affecting them like sex debut, use of condoms and circumcision,” he says.
How it works
The SMS tool, it is designed to give youth and children a voice on issues that affect and impact them in their community.
A question is sent each week; if the recipient answered correctly, a confirmation SMS was sent, and if he or she answered incorrectly, a rectifying message is sent. Questions includes: “What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?”, “How is HIV transmitted?”, “Have you ever tested for HIV?”
It uses a bulk of short message service (SMS) platform for HIV/AIDS education and communicating knowledge about the disease and encouraging subscribers to volunteer for HIV testing.
The Zambia U-Report has two programmatic modules (Knowledge Bank; Poll/Campaign):
The Knowledge Bank is a dynamic repository of up-to-date information on HIV and STI; it is accessible to the SMS-counsellors as they interact with the young people through SMS.