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Patricia Mechael

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Global Motherhood: Happy MAMA's Day!

Posted: 05/15/2012 3:59 pm

Many of us spent the past few weeks trying to figure out what we can do to honor our moms on Mother's Day -- flowers, breakfast in bed, a meal out. But what about the millions of moms in developing countries whose wish is to have access to basic health care and information? I have access to a vast array of resources -- from doctors and clinics to the Internet and mobile phone apps. But around the world, millions of mothers -- particularly those in the poorest communities -- are not so fortunate. The consequences are enough to make any mother's heart ache -- 1,000 moms die every day from complications from pregnancy and childbirth; 3.1 million newborns die within the first few weeks of life each year. Most of these deaths are preventable, if only these women had access to basic information and care.

My beautiful son, Gabriel, was born earlier this month, and, like every mom around the world, I can't imagine anything more devastating than losing a child. But this Mother's Day there's some exciting news: mobile technology has the potential to help moms everywhere. Did you know that more than 1 billion women in the developing world already own a mobile phone? Mobile phones are not only increasingly accessible, they can deliver timely and culturally sensitive health messages that can inform, dispel myths, highlight warning signs and connect pregnant women and new moms with local health services.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to put the power of health in every mother's hand. That's the idea behind MAMA -- the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, an innovative public-private partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development, Johnson & Johnson, the United Nations Foundation, BabyCenter and my own organization, the mHealth Alliance. I'm proud to announce that my organization now serves as the Secretariat for this important effort. The MAMA mission is straightforward: to deliver vital health information via mobile phones to new and expectant moms, particularly those living in the hardest to reach communities in the developing world.

MAMA launched on Mother's Day of last year, and our first year of progress is strong. Bangladesh has piloted MAMA in four regions and is poised for a national launch in July. Country programs in South Africa and India are also underway. MAMA has developed and made available free mobile health messages that can be adapted to different languages and special needs. Requests have already come in from 22 other countries to date, from Afghanistan to Zambia. Millions of moms will be reached as a result.

Here's how MAMA's mobile messaging works: A mother is registered for the service by indicating her expected due date, or the birthday of her recently born child. She then automatically receives weekly health messages and reminders during her pregnancy and up to the child's first birthday. Messages include tips on everything from how to keep the baby warm after birth to breastfeeding.

To address gender bias and the technical literacy gap -- the two main barriers to mothers owning and using phones in the developing world -- MAMA includes a separate service for husbands that reinforces the messages their wives are receiving; and for ease of use, messages can be delivered in both voice and text formats.

During my own pregnancy and even in my first few days as Gabriel's mom, I am greatly benefiting from a similar service in the United States and can't express enough how much it helped me to maintain peace of mind over alarming, but normal pregnancy woes and to know when to seek the care of a health professional.

This is no silver bullet -- far too many communities still need more and better health workers and infrastructure in place -- but mobile health messaging is an effective low-cost innovation that can help reach the most underserved, and empower mothers with information so that they and their babies can survive and thrive. That is the greatest Mother's Day gift of all.

 
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