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Mobile Mandate: On the Ground In Zambia

frog design has joined with UNICEF as the organization’s lead design and innovation partner on Project Mwana, a major mHealth initiative to improve maternal and infant health and welfare in peri-urban Malawi and rural Zambia. This partnership is part of Mobile Mandate, a new initiative from frog and its parent company Aricent to leverage mobile technology for social innovation. A team of three designers have been in the field in Zambia with UNICEF researching the use of SMS for healthcare appications in extremely rural locations. You can follow the team’s experience in this blog series.

An infant born to an HIV positive mother is at risk for transfer of the virus, which can be devastating to his or her tiny system.  An impressive effort is underway in Zambia to reduce this type of transfer as well as to get HIV positive babies onto life-saving treatment as soon as possible.  At six weeks of age, an infant can be tested using a Dry Blood Sample (DBS) test, and the faster a determination can be made, the faster a baby can be given treatment. The time between taking a sample and getting a result back is a race against the clock.

There are very few labs equipped to run this test and are usually located far from the rural clinics we have been working in.  The RapidSMS system developed by UNICEF is currently being used to send DBS results directly from the distant lab back to clinics via SMS message.  This is reducing the overall time between the time a sample is taken from the baby and the time a clinic receives a result.  But a key challenge remains: how can we shorten the time it takes to get a sample to the lab?

One of the challenges Zambians face is the lack of an efficient and speedy postal system in rural areas. To get around this, rural clinic workers often have to get creative about how to get babies’ DBS samples where they need to go. 

Enter Grace, a nurse in the village of Kabuta, located in the northern part of Nchelenge district. As her clinic is based in one of the more remote areas, she will sometimes travel the 50+ kilometers to the hub at St. Paul’s to deliver her DBS samples by hand. However, more often than not, she will enlist the help of anyone passing by, be it an NGO vehicle or, in the case of this particular day, our UNICEF team that came to interview her.

After giving us a thorough demonstration of the packaging and logging of four DBS samples from the past week, she asked us to take them back with us to St. Paul’s Hospital. We were more than happy to accommodate her. I remarked that by taking these samples into our custody, we were actively participating in the system we were there to interview her about. It was a profound moment to realize that the future of four infants’ lives was in our very hands.