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Cellphone project helps mothers curb spread of HIV to babies

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Mothers at a maternity hospital. Stigma and the pressure to hide one’s status are a major challenge for HIV positive women. Photo/FILE

Mothers at a maternity hospital. Stigma and the pressure to hide one’s status are a major challenge for HIV positive women. Photo/FILE 

By Mary Itumbi

Posted  Wednesday, December 29  2010 at  00:00

Pumwani Maternity Hospital, in the impoverished Nairobi neighbourhood of Eastlands, is the site of a trial project using mobile phones to help HIV-positive mothers avoid passing the virus on to their children.

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Juliet Wangari Njuguna is a research nurse with Kenya Aids Control Project. She works at the Pumwani hospital to assist HIV-positive mothers.

“We help with enrolment, and as patients come in they are sifted. We talk to those who happen to be HIV positive and find out how long they have known their status and if they have disclosed it to anyone,” said Ms Njuguna.

They also find out if the women have mobile phones. In July, the Kenya Aids Control Project started using Pumwani as a site for a study on the potential of following up on HIV positive patients using mobile phones.

The phone contact is intended to ensure that mothers keep taking their antiretroviral medicines and stay informed on what they need to do during pregnancy to reduce the risk of passing the virus on to their unborn child.

Mobile phones have become a popular means of communication in Kenya. The recent lowering of calling costs by service providers has encouraged more people to embrace the technology.

Being empowered

Pumwani Maternity Hospital chief executive, paediatrician Frida Govedi, said; “through this telephony they are being empowered with information. How they should eat, when they should take their vitamins, when they should come for their CD4 count; it is an interactive medium between the mother and the healthcare worker.”

Ms Njuguna and other research nurses at Pumwani take HIV-positive mothers through a questionnaire to determine whether they are candidates for the mobile phone programme.

The questionnaire records details such as a woman’s age, her general health, how long she has known that she is HIV positive, and if she is already on medication.

The mother also has to live within a reasonable distance of the hospital and be able to understand English or Kiswahili.

Questionnaire responses are entered into a database. All women subjected to the questionnaire receive antiretroviral therapy, but a randomly selected group also receives SMS messages.

The women are followed-up after they give birth to assess the success of the course of treatment. This is also aimed at measuring the effectiveness of the SMS prompts.

“The women start receiving one message per week, reminding them to come for their antenatal care visit,” said Ms Njuguna.

“In their last month of pregnancy, the message changes to remind them to take their drugs. But we write, ‘Remember to take your vitamins.’ We don’t want to put ‘ARVs’ in a text message, because we don’t know who can come across their phones.”

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