LILONGWE, Malawi, 05 January 2010 - The short message service (SMS) is proving to be a great ally in Malawi's battle to contain malnutrition and improve the lives of the country's children.
Since January of 2009, UNICEF - in collaboration with Columbia University - has been supporting the Government of Malawi in piloting the use of RapidSMS for nutrition surveillance on three different sites - in Dedza, Salima and Kasungu districts.
The project aims to greatly reduce the time needed for data collection at health centres and data transmission to health offices at the district and national levels. It also aims to improve data sharing, provide instant data validation, and enhance the ability of nutritionists to provide real-time feedback to health workers on the treatment needs of each individual child.
Saving time, saving lives
David Banda is a health extension worker who - thanks to the project - now uses his mobile phone to record and transmit nutrition information on the 70 or more under-five children he monitors every month.
"I have no other means of sending the information," he said. "We have no fax machine in this remote village."
Before the RapidSMS system was introduced, Mr. Banda used to cycle 30 kilometres every month to deliver the completed surveillance questionnaires to the district health office, and he would receive no feedback. In his 20-year career, he never imagined the day would come when data transmission would be done at the click of a button.
When his health centre was chosen to be part of the RapidSMS pilot, Mr. Banda and his fellow surveillance assistants were trained on-site for about three hours on how to register and send the information. A poster and sheet-card containing instructions was also provided for quick reference.
Improved reporting on nutrition
The mobile phones Mr. Banda and his fellow health workers use are linked to a computer at a national level. Using open source software, the computer is programmed to undertake basic data analysis and graphing, and is capable of sending responses on the nutritional status of each child via SMS.
A report by Columbia University found the preliminary results of the pilot to be very encouraging. The RapidSMS system has resulted in improved reporting of nutrition information and a reduction in errors, which are down to less than three per cent.
"Malawi is determined to rollout the use of RapidSMS in all districts to address the challenges of malnutrition," said Dr. Mary Shawa, Principal Secretary in charge of nutrition in the Office of the President.
For their part, Mr. Banda and his colleagues are thrilled that they receive feedback and are therefore able to refer children for specialized feedings as those needs arise.