The telecommunications industry and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have teamed up to use mobile phone technology to save lives in Sierra Leone.
The Red Cross and local mobile operator Airtel have launched a new service in Sierra Leone that offers information on disease outbreaks and other emergencies such as fires and floods. Launching this month, the partners aim to reach around one million Sierra Leoneans with life-saving information about preventing malaria.
Approximately 16,000 children and adults die from malaria each year in Sierra Leone, making it the country’s largest preventable cause of death. The country has a total population of about six million and around 70% of Sierra Leoneans have access to a mobile phone. This number is growing each year in line with the rest of the developing world.
The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society will use the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA), a location-based SMS system, to reach a potential audience of 36,000 people an hour. As well as providing information about malaria, the system will be used to provide warnings of impending fires, floods, or outbreaks of disease. Monthly prevention campaigns have been planned covering cholera, tuberculosis and child health information.
Sierra Leone is the second country in the world after Haiti to launch the TERA system. It has been in use in Haiti for three years and has delivered more than 100 million messages. The two-way system allows assessment of which areas are in the greatest need during an emergency and then respond with more information.
'We can use [the system] to warn people when emergencies or outbreaks start and to give them vital information on preventing diseases like malaria and cholera,' said Abubakarr Tarawallie, director of communications, SLRCS. 'Even better, the system is two-way so we can quickly assess the areas of greatest need after an emergency and respond to requests for information on a large-scale. Harnessing technology in this way is really helping the Red Cross to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our aid operations.'
According to Airtel’s managing director RVS Bhullar: 'No other disaster warning system is capable of reaching such large numbers of people in such a short space of time and in such a direct, personal way as SMS. Airtel is delighted to be part of this project and to put our network to good use working with the Red Cross and the government to have a real positive impact on our customers’ health and well being.'
Two additional mobile operators – Comium and SierraTel - have also agreed to issue SMS on behalf of the Sierra Leone Red Cross, increasing the number of people reached to 1.5 million.
Still recovering from a long-running civil war and cholera outbreak which killed hundreds last year, Sierra Leone hopes the TERA initiative will help cut down further fatalities from preventable diseases. 'Last year our country was hit by the worst cholera outbreak in 40 years,' explained Sierra Leone’s vice president, Chief Samuel Sam Sumana. 'Simple information could have helped prevent some of the 300 deaths we suffered. We know Sierra Leone has a poor health record and the government is committed to doing something about that. Working with the Sierra Leone Red Cross, Airtel, Comium and SierraTel, we can make sure people are armed with the knowledge and tools they need to protect themselves and their families.'
Sierra Leone Red Cross Society is being supported by the British and Icelandic Red Cross Societies.