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Fighting Malaria with Text Messages

August 30, 2016

TextDirect, a graduate student initiative to combat malaria, is being launched this summer in Sierra Leone. Funded by a $20,000 grant from D-Prize, a social venture competition targeting poverty, the project uses an automated, web-based platform that sends personalized text messages to patients undergoing malaria treatment to remind them to take their medicine.

In Sierra Leone, malaria accounts for nearly 50 percent of outpatient visits and is a significant cause of child mortality. While ACT-drug treatment regimes are subsidized and very effective, patients often fail to complete the full course of treatment. As with antibiotics, these drugs make patients feel better after a few doses, but the infection can return if the regime is not completed. TextDirect is a promising approach to this problem, since about 80 percent of Sierra Leone’s adults have access to a cell phone, and well-documented data have shown that text messages were highly effective in encouraging adherence to medication during the Ebola epidemic.

In August, members of the group went to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to teach local health care providers how to use the program and how to sign up patients to receive personalized notifications. The goal is to launch TextDirect as a pilot program with 2,500 patients and eventually turn it over to local health care professionals. The D-Prize grant supports the creation of the IT infrastructure, covers the cost of sending text messages, and provides incentives for doctors and nurses who register patients for the program: appropriately, one mobile phone credit for each patient registered.

Three of the competition winners completed their master’s degree programs at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs in May: Stephanie Leutert, Tiago SanFelice, and Nitsan Shakked. Returning to Yale in the fall will be Shashank Iyer, a joint-degree student at SOM and Jackson; and Anudeep Yegireddi, an MBA student at the Yale School of Management.

The project started as a class assignment for “Behavioral Strategies for Selling Products in Emerging Markets.” Professor Mushfiq Mobarak liked the idea for TextDirect and encouraged the students to apply for the prize. “It became something much larger than the class,” says SanFelice. “It’s a small idea with a big contribution.”

As someone who had malaria twice while living in Uganda, I'm well aware of how debilitating of a disease it can be,” Leutert adds. “The text reminders will help ensure that malaria patients complete their full medication dosage, increasing their own health and quality of life while reducing the spread of this disease across their communities.”