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Global Motherhood: Harnessing Mobile Technology To Improve Children's Health

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Every year, more than 3 million newborns die during their first month of life. This year alone, more than 7 million children around the world won't make it to the age of five. While these numbers are sobering, there is hope: Most of these deaths are preventable, and we already have the tools to help stop them.

One of the most promising tools fits in your pocket and is used by billions of people worldwide: a mobile phone. Access to medical information is a critical element in keeping children healthy. While many communities in low-income countries lack state-of-the-art health care facilities and trained professionals, they do have access to mobile technology.

For example, community health workers in Bangladesh are so busy that they are only able to visit their clients once a month. A mobile messaging program from the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) provides weekly reminders to new mothers and their families about their newborn's health and development. "I was shocked when I visited a family receiving these messages," one community health worker said. "When I told them their baby needed vaccines, they told me they'd already received them because the messaging service told them to!"

Mobile technology can help revolutionize health care in underserved communities by providing families with health information and tips, delivering reminders to take medicine or attend an appointment, assisting health care workers with clinical decisions and diagnostics and much more. The application of mobile technology to improve health outcomes is known as mobile health, or mHealth.

Next week, leaders from government, industry and civil society will gather in Washington, D.C. for the "Child Survival Call to Action" forum to focus on how to end preventable child deaths. This is an opportunity to shine a light on mobile health and the vital role it can -- and must -- play in helping save lives around the world.

To realize the full potential of mHealth, we need to develop programs and business models that are replicable, scalable and sustainable. Mobile health is ripe for the innovation that is needed to save lives.

That's why the United Nations Foundation co-founded the mHealth Alliance, which brings together a diverse group of stakeholders to foster innovation and collaboration in mobile health. The Alliance, which includes members from the technology community, the health care community, the development community and many other sectors, serves as a forum to exchange ideas, build connections, and share tools, knowledge and lessons learned. Together, we are working to harness the power of mobile technology to improve health care for people who often don't have access to the services that they need.

As part of this effort, the mHealth Alliance helped create MAMA -- the same mobile messaging program that reminded the family in Bangladesh that their newborn was ready for vaccines. The initiative, a public-private partnership that was launched last year by the United
States Agency for International Development
, Johnson & Johnson, the UN Foundation, mHealth Alliance, and BabyCenter, provides critical health care information through mobile phones to pregnant and new mothers living in poor and remote communities. Currently, MAMA is building programs in Bangladesh, South Africa and India -- countries with high maternal and infant death rates and high rates of mobile phone use. In addition to providing vital medical information to women in these countries, MAMA is focused on developing programs that can be expanded or replicated to help even more mothers.

Improving children's health is critical to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the international standards set by the United Nations for enhancing the lives of people around the world. It's also a key priority for the UN Foundation because healthy children lead to healthier communities, which is good for everyone -- no matter where you live.

Mobile health can make a positive difference in the lives of countless children and families. Thankfully, as leaders in development and health gather next week, mHealth will be a prime focus as they build solutions toward child survival.