Mobile phones may become a key weapon in the war against HIV and Aids in Africa, allowing counsellors to reach greater numbers of people, says the chief of the United Nation's Aids agency.
The relatively new technology has a role to play in a continent plagued by inadequate health centres and dilapidated infrastructure, said Michel Sidibe, the executive director of UNAIDS.
"You can talk about different policies, about capacity building, but you can't beat this kind of epidemic with facility-based approach only," he added.
Toll-free HIV/Aids counselling
A major mobile telephone operator in Nigeria already runs a toll-free call scheme that links callers to counsellors on HIV/Aids concerns.
"It's a fascinating initiative," said Sidibe.
"Its advantage is that you don't have to move from your place to a centre where... you may be stigmatised.
"You have free communication and quality advice, which can help you take a decision."
With basic intensive training and armed with mobile phones, local community or village workers could be a part of the health service delivery system, he said.
Sub-Saharan Africa most affected
Despite the resources poured into Sub-Saharan Africa for years to combat HIV/Aids, the region remains the world's most heavily affected, accounting for 67% of HIV infections, according to UNAIDS' figures.
"You need first to look at a community-based approach, tap on non-conventional facilities," Sidibe told AFP during a recent trip to Nigeria.
It is time that Africa, saddled with a myriad of economic, political and social woes, got back to basics, he argued.
"I don't think in any of our African countries we will be able to wait to have professionals, or to have enough of those people."
"It is time to reinforce our capacity to use the modern technology differently," he said.
Millions of cellphone users in Africa
Africa, which despite widespread poverty has a relatively large numbers of mobile phone users, should take advantage of the digital revolution to reach out widely, he said. "It's something we need to start replicating in Africa, remember we have more mobile phones in African than in north America," he added.
Nigeria has more than 70 million mobile phone subscribers: about one in every two people.
A pilot project using mobile phones is underway in the Nigeria's northern Kaduna State and southwestern Ondo State.
Village workers - who have barely been through secondary school - have been trained to identify symptoms of minor ailments.
They tour villages examining patients and use their mobile phones to call up trained medical workers at a major referral centre to get a diagnosis and prescription dictated over the phone.
Cellphones aid health workers
"Community health workers go out with a mobile phone connected to a central referral hospital, can take temperatures... and doctors at the referral units advise on drugs to administer," said Sidibe.
"Using all these types of approaches can help us improve information systems and expand delivery by reaching the poor in the community," he said.
Despite prevention measures, which he said had helped avert 400,000 new infections in the past eight years on the continent, sub-Saharan Africa had the highest number of new infections in 2008.
Most of those infected were sex workers, drug users and homosexual males.
About three million Nigerians, or just under 5% of Africa's most populous nation are infected with HIV.
Sidibe said he visited Nigeria and South Africa because the two economic giants account for more than 50% of all HIV cases in Africa. - (Sapa/AFP, March 2010)