Ed note. The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) is a mobile phone health initiative partnership led by USAID and Johnson & Johnson, with support from the mHealth Alliance and the United Nations Foundation. Recently, members of the MAMA partnership conducted a series of site visits in Bangladesh. This blog post comes from MAMA Global Partnership Director, Kirsten Gagnaire, and is part of the “blog tour series” reporting on the site visits and experience in Bangladesh.
When it comes to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it is clear that some of the biggest challenges lie within goals 4 and 5 – the MDGs that aim to reduce infant mortality and improve maternal health. The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) is taking steps to make a difference in this field with the help of mobile phones.
The MAMA partnership is expected to mobilize $10 million and leverages the collective resources of USAID and Johnson & Johnson with support from the United Nations Foundation, the mHealth Alliance and BabyCenter. MAMA’s focus is to get vital health information into the hands of new and expectant mothers who need it most. Mobile phones, the use of which is rapidly increasing even in the poorest countries, are an effective tool in helping the world meet the important targets of MDGs 4 and 5.
MAMA’s focus is twofold: to provide intensive in-country support to at least three countries – Bangladesh, India and South Africa – to help them launch and scale mobile messaging services targeted at new and expectant moms and those who support them. The secondary approach is to take the learnings from the country programs as well as from similar initiatives globally, and disseminate them via various approaches to global learning – such as easily accessible online learning modules, adaptable messages which contain content which is universal to pregnant and new moms everywhere but can be adapted for local customs and culture, conducting rigorous monitoring and evaluation and providing more customized support for pilot projects which are wanting to get to scale.
In a recent visit to Bangladesh, I toured urban slums, rural villages and suburban homes and clinics. I talked with new moms, expectant moms, fathers, grandparents, and community health workers who were a part of the pilot study of the local MAMA service, which is known as Aponjon (which translates as “trusted friend”). Expectant mothers who felt they were better prepared for birth because of the information they received during their pregnancies and fathers who said they made different decisions about which foods to buy to better support their pregnant wives and growing babies. I held healthy, happy babies whose families had received messages throughout their first year of life and knew that exclusive breast feeding was best, knew which foods to begin to introduce at which age, and knew how to engage their senses as their babies’ brains were developing.
One community worker explained to us that she tries to visit each of her clients about once a month, but cannot always make these monthly visits. During one visit to a family who had been receiving the MAMA messages on their mobile phone, she had planned to tell them that it was time to for their baby to receive the first round of vaccinations. “But when I said this,” she told us, “they said ‘We know! We got that information on our phone and took the baby to get vaccinations the very next day!’” She laughed as she told us this, excited to see that the program could take a relieve her of some of the pressure and allow her to discuss other health issues with the family during her visit.
The program isn’t just for new mothers, either. Shukla, who has a seven-year-old son in addition to her new baby, told us that as important as the messages were, it was the timing of the messages that she cared about. “Sure, I wanted to know about nutrition and vaccinations – but this information didn’t surprise me. It was the timing that really helped.”
As I left Bangladesh, there was no doubt in my mind that while scaling these types of mobile messaging services are not the only method for seeing an increase of healthy moms and babies, it is a powerful tool to get timely, relevant, and accessible information into the hands of people who are making the decisions related to health, nutrition, and care. Aponjon has a parallel messaging program for gatekeepers – those relatives who run the family and make critical decisions for and their babies. Educating those who support the moms can go a long way in helping women know how to care for themselves and their babies and when to seek care. While messaging services like MAMA are still relatively new and long-term research has not been completed, I believe that they will prove to be a game-changer in maternal and child health.