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Texting for HIV care in Kenya receives Grand Challenges funding

Mar 06, 2014 |

A University of British Columbia research team using cell phones to improve HIV patient care in Africa has secured a $2 million investment to expand their mobile health (mHealth) program across rural Kenya.

The funds are the result of a partnership between the non-profit WelTel and the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF), with the support of Grand Challenges Canada. Funded by the Government of Canada, Grand Challenges Canada supports bold ideas with big impact in global health and offers financial support and leadership for the scaling of promising and sustainable innovations. Grand Challenges Canada’s $1 million contribution was matched by AMREF.

“Cell phones are everywhere in Africa and usage costs are very low,” says Dr. Richard Lester, founder and director of the project. “This makes them a great tool for patient care in a resource limited setting like rural Kenya”.

Dr. Lester, faculty in the Department of Medicine at UBC, conducted a clinical trial in collaboration with the University of Manitoba and University of Nairobi and found that a simple “how are you?” text, sent weekly to patients on anti-viral therapy for HIV allowed nurses to easily manage and follow up with a large number of patients. Patients in turn reported better support and were 12% more likely to stay on their drug therapy, which in turn led to a 9% increase in patients with full viral suppression.

“This was one of the first trials that demonstrated improved HIV treatment behaviors”, says Dr. Lester. ”Given the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa, almost 30 million, these small but significant changes can be amplified to massive impact if brought to scale”.

Soon after the results were published, Dr. Lester helped establish WelTel, a non-profit to develop and apply his mobile mHealthstrategyfor widespread clinical use.

“Moving research to clinical practice is difficult since the challenges of the real-world are often not addressed in a clinical trial”, says Dr Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada. “With WelTel, Dr. Lester has developed a technology platform and partnerships in Kenya that have the potential to allow this mHealth strategy to be cost effective, self-sufficient, and most importantly, save lives”.

The positive impact of the WelTel platform in Kenya is expected to be large. In addition to HIV patients on antiviral therapy, the program will also be applied to women and children’s health and patients being treated for tuberculosis. Cost savings to health care will also be significant since the proper and prescribed use of medication prevents serious and more costly health issues.
“The progress of the mHealth program is impressive and we are eager to see communities gain from the knowledge, skills and means to maintain their own health”, says Dr. Lennie Kyomuhangi, the Director of the AMREF Kenya, which has provided half of the total funding for the program. “This project has the potential to transform the lives of the people in Kenya’s northern and arid lands”.
Dr. Lester, now based at the Immunity and Infection Research Centre at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, in addition to being the lead global health researcher in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UBC, is excited about the potential of WelTel and wants to use the technology platform to improve patient care in both Africa and North America.

“This is an effective tool for patient care that can be applied to all sorts of conditions that require long-term maintenance, and if it works in Africa, where there are many barriers to health care, then it should work here in Canada as well.”


The African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) is Africa’s largest International Health NGO. AMREF’s vision is for “lasting health change in Africa”: communities with the knowledge, skills and means to maintain their good health and break the cycle of poor health and poverty. With a focus on women and children, AMREF works with the most vulnerable African communities to achieve lasting health change. Learn more www.amref.org.

Grand Challenges Canada is dedicated to supporting Bold Ideas with Big Impact™ in global health. We are funded by the Government of Canada through the Development Innovation Fund announced in the 2008 Federal Budget. We fund innovators in low- and middle-income countries and Canada. Grand Challenges Canada works with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and other global health foundations and organizations to find sustainable, long-term solutions through Integrated Innovation − bold ideas that integrate science, technology, social and business innovation. Grand Challenges Canada is hosted at the Sandra Rotman Centre. www.grandchallenges.ca

The Immunity and Infection Research Centre (IIRC) studies disease transmission and the basic mechanisms of human immune responses involved in transplantation and infectious diseases in order to improve public health outcomes and health services. We are a core research centre of the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI). www.iirc.ca