IBM, Novartis, Vodafone in novel venture to combat malaria in Africa

A new solution developed by IBM, Novartis and Vodafone with the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, is helping to save lives using everyday technology to improve the availability of anti-malarial drugs in remote areas of Tanzania.

Called "SMS for Life," the initiative uses a combination of mobile phones, SMS technologies and intuitive web sites to track and manage the supply of artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) drugs and quinine injectables, both of which are key to reducing the number of deaths from malaria.

The mosquito-borne disease causes nearly one million deaths in Africa each year, mostly among pregnant women and young children, and many people die because they simply lack quick access to vital medication.

The concept of using text messaging to improve stock management of life-saving medicines was developed by pharmaceutical company Novartis and a team of international students taking part in IBM's internship programme, Extreme Blue. The team came up with SMS for Life, as it relies on simple technology and fosters self-sufficiency. IBM was tasked with managing the overall project and Vodafone was invited to develop and manage a system based on simple SMS messaging that would help ensure dispensaries did not run out of vital stock.

After visits to clinics, hospitals and dispensaries across Tanzania, IBM, Novartis and Vodafone initiated a five-month pilot of the SMS for Life solution, covering 135 villages and over a million people in different geographic locations across Tanzania.

Vodafone, together with its technology partner MatsSoft, developed a system in which healthcare staff at each facility receives automated SMS messages, which prompt them to check the remaining stock of anti-malarial drugs each week. Using toll-free numbers, staff reply with an SMS to a central database system hosted in the United Kingdom, providing details of stock levels, and deliveries can be made before supplies run out at local health centres.