As Ebola continues to spread across West Africa, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is partnering with Airtel, an Indian service provider, and the government of Sierra Leone in order to send health reminders through widespread text messaging campaigns.
Since last April, when the Ebola outbreak first began, officials have been utilizing the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application system to send nearly 2 million texts a month in the country. The messages provide the citizens of Sierra Leone with important health information and facts about Ebola to help educate the public, such as to avoid physical contact with others if they believe they have been infected, not to resist the aid of health workers in the area and other potentially life saving tips. The system is designed to send messages at off-peak hours to prevent network overload and recipients can opt out of the messages at any time.
Messages received by cell phone users include "People with Ebola who go to the health center early have a better chance of survival" and "Healthcare workers who take of Ebola patients have to wear protective clothes, do not be afraid of them." The service also allows text recipients to reply with basic health questions and receive and automated response regarding information about medical help, cleaning tips or treatment options.
Unified communications solutions have proved to be extremely effective in disseminating critical information during times of crisis. The TERA messaging system was also used in Haiti after the country's devastating 2010 earthquake and was first brought to Sierra Leone in 2013 to educate citizens about a cholera outbreak. Similar programs are used in the U.S. to send out information about severe weather or on college campuses to alert students about dangerous situations.
Text messages reach a wider audience than emails
The messaging system was set up by the IFRC and is capable of sending a text to any cell phone that is turned on within a certain region. In areas like Sierra Leone, Internet access is not nearly as widely available as cell phone service and mobile phones are a vital lifeline for those trying to communicate with a large audience in the midst of a crisis. More than two-thirds of those in Sierra Leone have cell phone service, while only 9 percent have access to a 3G or cellular Internet plan, NPR reported. Because the messages are sent to cell phone users located in specific regions, the IFRC and Sierra Leonean Ministry of Health can tailor the texts to certain populations and provide regional advice.
In an interview with NPR, IFRC mobile operator relations officer Robin Burton noted that the system can also be used to make aid services more effective through feedback from recipients.
"We hope this will empower people to help themselves," said Burton. "They could send a message back to us saying, 'Thanks for the rice, but we have no way to cook it,' or, 'We don't eat pork here.' We call it beneficial communications because it helps everyone do better."
Burton also noted that the information sent in texts is saved on the phone and can be used for later reference, unlike information shared through the television or radio which is often quickly forgotten.
So far, more than 4,000 people have died as a result of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and the rapid pace at which is has been spreading in the region has spurred the Red Cross into expanding the messaging program to seven other countries in the area; Tongo, Mali, Benin, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso and Gambia. Once the Ebola outbreak subsides, the TERA system will remain in use in those countries during natural disasters or times of conflict.