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[VIDEO] Ex-Novartis CIO Fighting Malaria in Africa via Text Messages

One and a half thousand people a day die from malaria, according to Jim Barrington.

After starting a career in IT in 1970, Jim Barrington, former CIO at Novartis, began looking for new ways to apply his skills to serve the greater good.

In 2008, Barrington came up with a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program called SMS For Life that uses text messages to help remote African medical clinics maintain a steady supply of antimalarial medications.

In many African countries, supply chain problems make it difficult to get malaria medicines to patients. Due to zero visibility to district management on the medicine stock levels; difficulty in forecasting demand for drugs; and inconsistent reporting of consumption and sporadic, paper-based reporting; people would walk long distances to clinics only to find that no medicine was left.

“I came up with the first notion that perhaps IT could help solve this problem,” said Barrington.

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The core of the solution is the use of SMS messaging between the health facilities that dispense antimalarial medicines (artemisinin-based combination therapies, ACTs, and quinine injectables) and their district medical officers who are responsible for treatment availability in the districts.

Every Thursday, the system sends a stock request message to the mobile phones of all registered health facility workers. They then count how much stock they have and send the information back to the system via a free text message. If they have not done this by Friday, the system sends them a reminder. On the following Monday, the system sends information about stock levels and non-reports to the district medical officer, who can then monitor stock levels and order or redistribute medicine between sites accordingly.

Stock-outs can thus be resolved within just one or two days whereas in the past this would have taken one or two months.

“It’s very difficult to judge how many lives we might have affected,” said Barrington. “We know at the end of the pilot there were 300,000 people that had access to malaria medicine that had no access to that medicine at the start of the pilot.”  

SMS For Life has been rolled out across Tanzania, with 5,100 facilities trained and reporting on a weekly basis. Tracking of tuberculosis and leprosy medicines, funded by the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, has also been added.

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 “Once you get to Africa and you get the red dust between your toes, you fall in love with the place,” said Barrington.

Watch the inspirational vide below. 

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