As South Africa battles one of the largest HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world, a group of healthcare workers and innovators is deploying a powerful new weapon in the fight: the cell phone. By sending out approximately 1 million HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis text messages each day to the personal cell phones of the general public, the initiative aims to overcome the widespread stigma that prevents millions of South Africans from seeking testing and treatment.

According to the United Nations, South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world. The disease kills 1,000 people in the country every day, but few seek medical treatment because of societal pressure.

Calling it the “largest ever” use of mobile devices for the delivery of HIV/AIDS and TB care, the organizers of Project Masiluleke, which means “to give wise counsel” in Zulu, hope their encouraging messages will transform social values. The messages are broadcasted in three languages: English, Zulu, and Sesotho. One message says: “HIV+ & being mistreated by your family or friends? For confidential counseling call AIDS Helpline on 0800012322.”

“Because cell phone penetration in Africa and in South Africa is almost 100 percent … this is the absolute perfect medium available,” said Dr. Krista Dong, an HIV and TB specialist and director of the South African HIV and TB outreach organization iTeach. Her organization is one of the key local partners on the initiative.

Cell phones are likely to play an increasing role in delivering health care in the United States as well. Last summer, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte School of Nursing launched a text-message–based AIDS education program for teenagers, while in Baltimore, a technology-based healthcare company, WellDoc Communications, is already using mobile technology to monitor and interact with older diabetes patients.

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