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Mobile Health Service for Moms

Text messages or voice mails will inform women of ways to care for themselves during pregnancy.

A woman gives birth somewhere in the world every second, but in many places, “becoming a mother can be a dangerous and life threatening undertaking,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in May while announcing a new program designed to save the lives of both mothers and babies.

“Women in developing countries, some of the women most at risk for pregnancy-related problems, will be able to use their cell phones to get health information via text messages or voice mails,” Secretary Clinton said of the program dubbed MAMA—Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action.

She announced the initiative at the State Department in Washington, D.C., accompanied by representatives from other agencies inside and outside government who will help make MAMA a success. The MAMA program is getting underway in India, Bangladesh and South Africa with $10 million in support over the next three years.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of the partners behind MAMA. Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg said the program will take advantage of the wildfire spread of mobile phones in the developing world. “Mobile health messages will inform women of ways to care for themselves during pregnancy, to dispel myths and misconceptions, to highlight warning signals, to connect women with local health services to reinforce breast-feeding practices, to explain the benefits of family planning, and to make new mothers aware of how to best care for their babies,” Steinberg said.

Lending the effort some urgency, Secretary Clinton said that 360,000 women worldwide die in or shortly after childbirth every year, and four million babies die during birth or within a few weeks. Despite these grim statistics, the United States and other donor nations and organizations have made important progress in reducing what experts call the “maternal mortality ratio” by 34 percent in the developing world between 1990 and 2008. Nepal has reduced by half the number of mothers dying in childbirth, she said.

Johnson & Johnson, an infant and personal care product manufacturer, is another sponsor of the effort. “Cell phones are just about everywhere, and they represent a significant untapped resource for advancing health care,” said William Weldon, chief executive officer and chairman of Johnson & Johnson, at the State Department briefing. His company has been involved in a similar program in the United States, text4baby, which, with its more than 180,000 subscribers, has demonstrated enough success to expand the program to Russia.

The U.S. chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, praised the text4baby program. “A physician from Virginia called to tell me, ‘I know this is working, Aneesh, because more patients are coming in for their prenatal care visits. When my staff asks, [the patients say] ‘I got a text message that I got to come in.’ ”

Chopra said MAMA will “leapfrog” technologies to help mothers in the developing world. Satellite phone capability can take MAMA connections to villages where telephone lines were never strung and television signals don’t reach.

While Secretary Clinton is excited about the lifesaving potential of MAMA, she also has a larger vision. She said the text messaging program can be a “positive multiplier,” with the potential to improve health and advance development in other aspects of life as well. “When women succeed they lift themselves, their families and their communities along with them,” she said.

When the program is proven to be operative and effective it will expand to other nations, officials said.

Other partners in the MAMA initiative are the United Nations Foundation; BabyCenter, a global online parenting network, represented at the briefing by model and activist Christy Turlington Burns; and the mHealth Alliance, affiliated with the U.N. Foundation, working to use wireless technologies to improve health care in the developing world.


Charlene Porter is a staff writer for the U.S. Depart­ment of State’s International Information Programs.