Using Mobile Phone Technology to Tackle Disease and Malnutrition

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Researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia working with Indian partners are using mobile phone technology to tackle disease and malnutrition in remote parts of India.

Data from the World Bank indicates that 63 out of every 1,000 Indian children die before reaching the age of five, with undernourishment taking a heavy toll.

"We often forget how easily babies die," says Anne Marie Thow, a health policy specialist from the University of Sydney. Together with Michael Dibley from the Sydney School of Public Health, she is piloting a project through the South Asian Infant Feeding Network to tackle child hunger in India.

Building on the pioneering efforts of Professor Archana Patel from the Lata Medical Research Foundation and the Indira Gandhi Medical College, the scheme encourages better infant feeding practices by using mobile phones to provide information and counselling to rural families. A midwife checks up on new and expectant mothers by ringing them each week, and as the infant grows women are sent customised text messages each day.

Work is being conducted in the eastern part of Maharashtra State around Nagpur.

Associate Professor Dibley says: "Counselling is essential for engaging with hard-to-reach communities. Our program aims to bring new and diverse sources of information to women who may be in closed social networks."

In villages where a single mobile phone is typically shared by a family, he hopes that information about correct feeding practices will be disseminated through the whole family.

He added: "There are no short cuts to solving the problem of undernutrition amongst children. We need interventions that can be delivered on a large scale to make a difference."

Another Sydney academic is using mobile phones to help women in India reduce the threat of cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer, but limited medical services in rural regions and the social stigma attached to cancer - which prevents women seeking help - contribute to high mortality rates. Of the 34,000 Indian women who died from cervical cancer in 2010, most were in their late thirties and early forties and most were in rural areas.

With support from the Australian government, Associate Professor Lyndal Trevena from Sydney's School of Public Health, is helping to train health workers to conduct a simple but effective low-tech screening and treatment program that is widely promoted by the World Health Organization for use in low-resource settings.

She has collaborated with the Christian Medical College in Vellore, Weill Cornell Medical College in the USA and Cancer Council Australia to implement a screening programme which paints the cervix with vinegar and freezes any abnormalities with liquid nitrogen. This simple technique reduces the lifetime risk of cervical cancer by 25 to 40 per cent

In August, the program brought together thirty experts from across India, including the method's pioneer Dr Sankaranarayanan from WHO, to share experiences and identify solutions.

One of the greatest challenges is to improve women's understanding of cervical cancer. The team hopes to address this through an interactive mobile phone program being piloted in rural towns in Tamil Nadu state.

"This fits in well with the Indian government's plans to provide free mobile phones to the poorest Indian families," says Professor Trevena. "Women will be able to phone in to a VoiceSite and have their questions and concerns answered in their own language. This new technology has the capacity to reach all women, regardless of whether they can read or not."

Professor Trevena, who has worked as a medical practitioner for 25 years, adds: "My job is to bridge the gap between research and clinical practice to make sure it makes a difference to people's lives."

Professor Trevena is among a delegation of more than 20 academic leaders and researchers from the University of Sydney who are visiting India in November. It is the University's fourth major visit to the subcontinent in the past five years.

The Strategic Partnership signed by India and Australia in 2009 has strengthened the bond between two countries that are increasingly drawn together by trade, security concerns and the legacy of history.

Professor John Hearn, Vice-President International, said: "Education is the most effective form of diplomacy, and our aim is to create lasting research and educational links that bring benefits to both countries. The potential gains in key areas such as global health and food security are enormous."

In Delhi, University researchers are conducting workshops with Indian partners and discussing future collaborations, and the University will be signing agreements with JNU, the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

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