UN agencies launch m-Health initiative to tackle non-communicable illnesses

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), both agencies of the United Nations (UN), have teamed up to launch a new ‘m-Health’ programme that will use mobile messaging and applications to fight non-communicable illnesses such as diabetes and cancer.

The two agencies announced in a press release that they are looking to provide evidence-based and operational guidance to encourage partners – governments, NGOs and the private sector – to implement m-Health programmes.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are some of the leading causes of death in both developed and developing countries, dominating healthcare needs and expenditure. They contribute 36 million deaths across the world every year.

“Technological innovations are changing the landscape of disease prevention and control,” said ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Touré. “The widespread availability of mobile technology, including in many of the least developed countries, is an exceptional opportunity to expand the use of e-health. By joining forces, ITU and WHO will fight against debilitating non-communicable diseases that can be controlled through the intervention of m-Health solutions and services that are at once cost effective, scalable and sustainable.”

“In doing so, we will help end a scourge that hinders economic growth and development around the world,” he added.

The initiative, announced at this year’s ITU Telecom World in Dubai, will address prevention and treatment of NCDs and their common risk factors – tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol – by building on current projects, existing health systems and platforms.

“WHO is already using mobile devices to carry out surveillance of non-communicable diseases and their risk factors,” said Dr Oleg Chestnov, WHO Assistant Director-General for Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health. “For example, the Global Adult Tobacco Surveillance system has used mobile phones to capture data on tobacco use in 17 countries – covering over half of the world’s population. This experience of running population-scale mobile projects will be vital to the initiative.”

WHO and ITU Member States are also testing mobile solutions for NCDs – ranging from providing assistance to help people quit tobacco, helping people increase their activity levels, eating more healthily and helping patients with non-communicable diseases better manage their conditions. All of these experiences will feed into the new initiative, which will initially run for a four-year period.

Africa is already benefitting from various m-health initiatives, one of which was revealed by HumanIPO last month. Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa were confirmed as the first countries in Africa to benefit from an initiative launched by technology service provider Etisalat and the GSMA consortium, which is aimed at reducing maternal death rates using mobile phones delivering health content.

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