While the public health system in South Africa buckles under the weight of people needing to use it, a quarter of a million pregnant women in the country now use personalised instant messaging from a Mxit health-care intervention to get vital information.
Mxit Reach, which launched a newer version of its app Babyinfo last week, had over 17 000 registrations in the last seven days, says Maru van der Merwe, head of the health division at Mxit Reach.
“Providing the information on mobiles using a platform that is cost-effective to access, allows for incredible reach.
“Over 250 000 users now access the service every month. The app provides free access to high-quality maternal health information via a cellphone, and the service is personalised, with each subscriber receiving daily information based on their stage of pregnancy,” Van der Merwe said.
For Gugulethu resident Pozisa Apleni, mobile health interventions that assist with maternal and child health care have come too late. In 2009, at just 28 weeks of pregnancy, she gave birth to her daughter, Sisipho.
The only place she could get medical information was from the clinic, where staff told her she had high blood pressure which made her pregnancy difficult.
She believes had she had this app, she would have benefited from the personalised information about her condition during her pregnancy. “Sisipho was born during my second trimester. If there was information back then that came through my cellphone, I would’ve known how to keep myself healthy throughout the pregnancy.”
Giving the thundering growth of cellphone usage, it is not surprising that mobile health apps are taking off. Consumer research organisation, Nielsen, found in a recent study that cellphone use among South African adults rose from 17 percent in 2000 to 76 percent in 2010.
It also found that more South Africans now use cellphones (29 million) than listen to the radio (28 million), and that across the continent more Africans have access to cellphones than have access to clean water.
The study found that phones are increasingly used for activities other than calling. Almost 70 percent of people text rather than call, while instant messaging is popular, with 61 percent of people using Mxit alone.
For those working in the mobile health sector, it is not just about sending messages but making sure they are read and understood.
“I think the most important thing,” says Sindiswa Govuza, a mentor mother at the Philani Child Health and Nutrition Project, “is that explanations are given with each instruction because then people really do take the time to understand.
“So, if we say: ‘You should not drink alcohol or smoke during pregnancy’, we also need to describe exactly what the risks or disadvantages are.
“During pregnancy, it is the mother who needs the information, but once the baby is born, it is often not the mother taking care of the child. So then it is up to the caregiver to receive that information.”