Things are changing in Bangladesh, as Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) makes vital healthcare information available to more and more mothers.
Known for high per capita poverty rates and a devastating shortage of doctors, infant mortality is high in Bangladesh, where over five thousand mothers lost their lives due to avoidable complications of pregnancy and childbirth last year.
Having subscribed half a million mothers and counting, MAMA transmits bi-weekly messages via voicemail or SMS texting depending on the subscriber's preferences and to accommodate a varying degree of literacy. The service is called Aponjon, which means "the trusted one" in Hindi.
Despite reaching out to an already-high number of subscribers, efforts are underway to increase circulation, notable of which is making the messages available in local dialects.
Technology developers are looking into creating a high-end app in hopes that it could soon cross-subsidise basic Aponjon service for the poorest women and their families.
The increase of mobile phone use in the poorest countries is a growing phenomenon. One billion women in low and middle income countries own mobile phones.
Information relayed in the messages could pertain to anything from nutrition, to recognising and treating a range of illnesses. The messages are often in theatre-format, with actors posing as mothers, pregnant women, their doctors and partners.
Subscribers say it's working.
Asha Rani said the messages gave her more confidence in caring for her second child, not to mention information she wishes she'd been able to access when the first one came along.
"I didn't know how to take care of him or what to feed him. [He] got sick frequently and I had to take him to the doctor or hospital all the time. Now everyone in my family takes care of my child by following the messages," she says.
Each message currently costs two taka, approximately eight sen. With the help of partners Johnson & Johnson Worldwide Corporate Contributions, Humanitarian aid organisation USAID, and communications provider Dnet, MAMA aims to provide the service free of charge for the poorest subscribers, approximately 20% of the network.
"Mobile phones and mobile health initiatives have the potential to be the great equaliser in countries like Bangladesh, where over 80% of households have a mobile phone. Dnet and the MAMA partners have done a terrific job of turning an innovative concept into a successful reality. Aponjon is saving lives.
"USAID is a proud partner in this Alliance, and we look forward to watching Aponjon continue to provide valuable information and services to Bangladeshi families across the country," says Allyson P. Bear, Health Systems Strengthening Team Leader, USAID.
Despite project leaders' satisfaction, some say this is just beginning. Efforts are underway to increase circulation, notable of which is making the messages available in local dialects.
Launched on Mother's Day 2011 by former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, MAMA concentrates its efforts on improving health communications in areas with high rates of infant mortality and high mobile phone usage.
MAMA is at the helm of similar projects in South Africa and India. — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014