Text messaging project raises AIDS awareness in Tanzania

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A. Sue Weisler

Ammina Kothari, assistant professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts, believes a solution to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa may lie with text messaging.

A native of Tanzania, Ammina Kothari has been aware of how a paucity of information and the resulting creation of myths and half-truths has contributed to the spread of HIV and AIDS. Today, Kothari believes a solution can be found in text messaging. 

Based on research done in collaboration with Dennis Elliott, a lecturer from Indiana University’s School of Journalism, Kothari, an assistant professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts, believes the future of disease prevention in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa lies in using cellular technology to transmit free health and 
patient management information to subscribers in a targeted and timely manner. 

“Although Internet access is sometimes unreliable and expensive, most people have cell phones,” she says. “Short message service, or texting, for example, is an effective way for residents to confidentially ask 
questions about HIV/AIDS and quickly 
receive accurate answers in return.”

To test her theory, Kothari returned to Tanzania often to gather insight from those on the ground including health-care professionals, patients, general populations, caregivers and the media. Her initial research determined that Tanzanians have a strong interest in accessing health information 
by way of text messaging and perceive the medium to be a suitable method for sharing information about HIV/AIDS.

“Many people are still searching for 
answers to basic questions about HIV and AIDS—such as how it’s spread,” she adds. “It’s important that we think of creative ways to bridge the technological and social divides which hinder timely transmission of information to people. Our model is about the potential and efficiency of using 
cellular technology for these purposes.”

Kothari’s next step is putting her 
plan into action. She is looking to secure 
funding to test her system as well as 
cell-phone carriers who are interested in 
being providers for the service. She plans 
to return to Tanzania next summer to test 
the proposed communication model using focus groups where participants will send and receive HIV- and AIDS-related text messages.

“Because of the development of new drugs, it is not uncommon for people to think that HIV/AIDS is under control,” Kothari says. “The reality is that people are dying and 
are being replaced by new cases, but to the uneducated viewer, it would appear that the disease has plateaued. This is not the case. Thus, improved communications to address prevention/education as well as to fulfill the promise of management for those living with HIV is welcomed.”

Kothari also knows that there is no time to waste. 

“In 2011, 69 percent of the world’s people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly, something needs to be done to eliminate the spread of this disease.”