Using cell phones to track a community's health in Congo
March 13, 2012 by Sinziana Demian
|IRC health volunteer Emelda Musabyimana chats with her neighbor Jacqueline Ntakondagize. Photo: Sinziana Demian/IRC|
For Emelda Musabyimana, life changed a few months ago when the International Rescue Committee asked her to play an active role in a health project rolling out in her village. “Maman Emelda” (Mama Emelda), as she is known by her neighbors, has an important duty to perform: record and transmit all births and deaths in the 15 households she is assigned to survey.
Run with technical support from Columbia University, Jamii, which means ‘community’ in the local Swahili language, is a project that uses a network of local men and women, such as Maman Emelda, to systematically gather information about all births and deaths in a sample 40 villages in North Kivu.
“This was a striking realization, and it showed the clear need for more precise data,” says Dr. Amadou Bah, the IRC health coordinator in North Kivu. “One of the main goals of our program is to reduce mortality and morbidity, but in the absence of clear figures it is difficult to quantify the real impact of our work.”
According to Dr. Bah, births are far more likely to be recorded than deaths, in part because some births take place in a health center. Infant deaths and deaths due to a violent event are culturally sensitive in Congo and therefore more likely to go undeclared.
So far, Maman Emelda has had no trouble getting information from her fellow villagers. On a recent visit to the mud hut of Jacqueline Ntakondagize, for example, she sat down with her neighbor and chatted a bit before asking for an update about Maman Jacqueline’s household. There were no births or deaths to report, so Maman Emelda marked zeros in her register.
Congo is only the second country (Sierra Leone is the other) where the IRC has conducted a surveillance using cell phones. Halfway through the project, the reporting rates are 95 percent of estimate rates. One unexpected development: Volunteers who are illiterate have an easier time reporting data using cell phones than paper forms. Cell phones could become a central part of rural health strategies in developing countries, both for collecting data and for faster message dissemination in emergency situations.
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