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Fighting infant mortality with phone alerts

A woman sits with her newborn and mobile phone at a medical facility and reads an information booklet as part of a maternal-health initiative trial that started last week. Photo supplied
A woman sits with her newborn and mobile phone at a medical facility and reads an information booklet as part of a maternal-health initiative trial that started last week. Photo supplied

Fighting infant mortality with phone alerts

A new maternal-health initiative is seeking to patch a persistent knowledge gap among new mothers by providing information via mobile phone alerts on optimal post-natal care during the first 1,000 days of a baby’s life.

Cambodia’s national infant mortality rate, despite improvements, remains stubbornly high at about 27 deaths per 1,000 live births, and maternal and infant health experts say that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life have nutrition and health outcomes that can last a lifetime.

The new mHealth project seeks to drive down infant mortality and shore up health during this developmentally crucial phase by providing women timely pre-recorded pointers relating to nutrition and infant healthcare at each stage of their baby’s early growth.

The rollout of the program began in 20 communities last week with the full project to expand next month to 10,000 registered women, according to Tracy Yuen, a health program manager at People in Need (PIN), the Czech NGO that piloted the initiative. PIN launched a similar program two years ago that provided new mothers with pre-recorded messages for the first 30 days of their children’s lives.

“The first month after birth is generally the highest risk”, but nearly all of the participants wanted the service to last longer, Yuen said.

The voice-recorded messages employed by mHealth are more effective than text-messaging services, Yuen said, because while 94 per cent of Cambodians had their own phone, only 63 per cent of those phones can display Khmer script – and that doesn’t account for illiteracy.

While the so-called “1,000 day theory” is widely accepted among maternal health specialists, Dr Ping Chutema, director of clinical services at maternal health NGO RHAC, said yesterday that a lack of knowledge of the theory among Cambodian mothers often leads to complications during the first two years of life.

“The majority of infection and malnutrition happen then,” Chutema said. “Mothers must learn how to feed the baby, take care of the baby [to prevent] infection – especially lung infections.”

For now, the mHealth project will operate in Kampong Chhnang province, where the infant mortality rate is nearly double the already-high national average.

According to Yuen, the higher rate in rural provinces could likely be attributed to a lack of health education, delays in seeking care and reliance on traditional practices – like using unsterile balms to treat an infant’s umbilical cord or “roasting”, in which new mothers lay above a bed of hot coals, keeping them from breastfeeding.

An evaluation by PIN released last month showed that during its pilot 30-day project, the admission of children to health centres increased, and there were fewer mothers engaging in traditional practices.

For the maternal mHealth project, messages were scripted by the NGO and voiced by actors from the Women’s Media Center, playing characters like a grandmother and a midwife.

“I think a lot of mothers are genuinely interested in health advice,” Yuen said. “When women have a vested interested in something – or consumers, the audience in general – the messages are going to stick.”

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