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Maternal care via SMS

 Street News Service 04 July 2019

In rural Senegal, a pilot project uses text messaging to remind women of upcoming doctor’s appointments and local health meetings. One hundred and fifty new and expecting mothers were given cell phones that help keep themselves, and their babies, alive and healthy. (727 Words) - By Amanda Fortier

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SNS_Maternal care via SMS

One hundred and fifty new and expecting mothers were given cell phones to remind them of upcoming doctor’s appointments.  Photo courtesy of Plan International

At the Mbosse health clinic, tucked away down the sandy back-roads a hundred kilometers northeast of Dakar, villagers are gathered in the courtyard.  Men and women from more than a dozen nearby communities are discussing important health topics, such as diarrhea prevention, nutrition, tuberculosis and family planning, while a group of children takes part in a skit on malaria prevention.

Under the shade of a tin roof, a group of mothers sit on colorful woven mats balancing babies on their laps. Each woman spoon-feeds a grainy mixture of dried fish, millet, tomato and peanuts into their baby's tiny mouth. On the clinic's front porch, two nurses place a crying newborn into a sling to take its weight. These activities are all part of a five-year health plan funded by USAID - one to help improve family health in rural Senegal. In October 2009, the project added a text-messaging service that sends vital reminders to keep women up to date on their pre and post-pregnancy appointments.

Fatou Tine is a 25-year-old mother of four.  She joined the text message program a year ago during her last pregnancy. Fatou is illiterate and so is her husband, who lives in Dakar.

"The project has been useful for me, because my last pregnancy was a lot easier than the three before," explains Tine in her local Wolof language.  "Two days before every doctor's appointment I got a text.  But as I cannot read, the person I live with helped me. In total, I received three messages during my pregnancy and four messages after to remind me to get my baby vaccinated."

Before the cell phone project started, women only learned about health matters through discussion, and when they did see a doctor the next appointment was written down on a slip of paper that was soon lost or quickly forgotten.

Deguène Fall is in charge of the community health programs for Plan International, which is one of five nongovernmental organizations collaborating on the SMS program.

"It has been an excellent project for areas where women have difficulty in accessing health clinics -- either financially or geographically," Fall says. "Previously, during health discussions many women felt there was too much talking and got bored.  When doctors wrote their next appointments down, even with immunizations, the women would forget because they were out working in the field or too busy helping in the house.  Now that they receive direct messages they do not usually forget."

Health care workers at the Mbosse clinic estimate about 95 percent of the women who receive texts actually show up for their appointments.  Many also join in the regular health meetings and bring their friends or husbands along.

The costs of visits range from about 20 cents for a child and 65 cents for an adult.  Food and nutritional advice is 30 cents and medication is free.  Although these prices are subsidized by the state, it can still be a lot in an area where a single visit to the doctor can mean half a day's income.

The African Child Policy Fund ranks Senegal 13th in health expenditure, below Burkina Faso and Chad, but well above Ghana.  The Senegalese government spends slightly more than 12 percent of its annual budget on health.  That is more than richer countries, such as South Africa, Morocco or Egypt, but still falls short of targets, set by African leaders to spend 15 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) on health before 2015.

David Mugawe, the executive director of the African Child Policy Fund, believes modern means of communication play a vital role in helping improve the lives of Africans.

"Media is playing a big part in creating awareness and passing on information at a low cost," explains Mugawe.  "Mothers can share experiences and learn from each other, but men are also being targeted because they make many of the decisions at home. They are the breadwinners and have access to resources, so they need to be supportive of the mother by going to health centers with them, supporting the well-being of their children."

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