How Cell Phones Are Helping Fight Malaria

Community health workers receive new cell phones as incentives to continue their malaria rapid reporting. Photo by Imani Cheers/PBS NewsHour.

LIVINGSTONE, Zambia –Tokozile Ngwenya-Kangombe, a project coordinator with Akros Research, knows first-hand how dangerous malaria can be for pregnant women and children under the age of five. Roughly half of the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria and more than 200 million people are infected annually, according to the Malaria Control and Evaluation Partnership in Africa.

UNICEF estimates that in Zambia, malaria accounts for 20 percent of maternal deaths and that of all people who die from the preventable disease, 50 percent or more are children under the age of 5.

Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite and spread by mosquitoes. Zambia is home to the deadliest form of the parasite: Plasmodium falciparum and malaria affects more than 4 million Zambians annually and results in almost 8,000 deaths per year.

Ngwenya-Kangombe once traveled upwards of 100 miles per day to reach community health volunteers in southern Zambia’s heavily impacted areas. She would spend several hours copying health volunteers and clinic staff notebooks documenting malaria trends. Now, with the use of mobile technology, Ngwenya-Kangombe and health workers have been able to double the number of clinics and patients they visit per day.

At the Siakasipa Clinic located approximately 30 miles from the famous Victoria Falls in southern Zambia, head Nurse Ruth Nghlove serves approximately 8,000 local residents. During the rainy season (November to April) malaria cases are higher than during the dry season (May to October) as the mosquitoes breed in water.

Several key interventions have been implemented since 2000, including distributing long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor residual spraying and antimalarial medicines to curb the disease. The introduction of rapid reporting systems, using mobile phones to provide real-time data and the detection of high-infection areas, has health workers and volunteers excited about ending malaria deaths for good.

“With my mobile phone, I can get updates from health care volunteers while they are out in the field instead of waiting hours, sometimes days, for them to make it back here to the clinic with their reports” said Nghlove.

Community health volunteers are not paid a salary in Zambia. Instead, the Ministry of Health and partnering NGOs, such as PATH supply them with incentives including mobile phones and bicycles for their time and efforts. Even so, some health care volunteers are still in need of “talk time” — or cell phone minutes — to continue their work.

“I am grateful for the free phone but without talk time, I cannot afford to send in my reports electronically,” remarked one community health volunteer, Anna.

Others, such as Kdnele, who has been a community health volunteer for 18 years, is grateful for his phone and bike. “I’m able to visit 6 to 8 patients instead of 3 to 4 with my bike, and I didn’t have a mobile phone until I was given one to file my reports,” he said.

PATH, in partnership with the Republic of Zambia Ministry of Health, has developed a three-step approach to eradicate malaria, including rapid reporting, mass testing and treatment and active surveillance. These steps are being implemented in Zambia on the pilot level with the goal of creating “malaria-free” zones which will then be duplicated in other sub-Saharan African countries.

On April 25, the global malaria community will commemorate World Malaria Day under the theme, “Invest in the Future: Defeat Malaria,” aiming to reach the 2015 Millennium Development Goals and defeat malaria. While many developing countries have an uphill battle ahead, Zambia has found that embracing mobile technology is making those goals as realistic as sending a text message.

For a social media display of community health workers and volunteers, click here.

This story is part of a series of reports on the impact of mobile technology and health in 10 African countries. For more, visit The Cheers Report.

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