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How mobile phones could help expectant mothers

Maternal mortality has declined since 2001, but a new technology could help more mothers and babies survive childbirth
Maternal mortality has declined since 2001, but a new technology could help more mothers and babies survive childbirth

There is a worrying divide between medical care for rural and urban women in Bangladesh. Could a new advice programme help to change this trend?

In recent years the maternal mortality rate in Bangladesh has shown an encouraging decline, from 322 deaths per 100,000 births in 2001 to 194 in 2010. This has put the country as a whole, well on track to hit its Millennium Development Goal for maternal mortality. However, Iqbal Anwar, a reproductive health researcher at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDRB) in Dhaka, tells IRIN news that there is a growing divide between rural and urban areas.

A recently published ICDDRB report finds that in Bangladesh's countryside maternal health services often had neither the staff nor the facilities to properly care for pregnant women. This fact hasn't escaped the notice of the Bangladeshi government, whose health minister recognised the severe divide between prospective mothers in different areas of the country. Now, a new approach could help bridge this divide by opening up new channels of information for rural women.

Reaching out

Mobile phone use in Bangladesh has seen a massive rise over the past few years and now there are more than 115 million registered subscribers – nearly 75 percent of the country's population. This high rate of ownership provides an opportunity to reach out to rural women and give them advice that could prove life saving for them and their babies. The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, has embraced this opportunity and, two years ago, they launched a new programme, called Aponjon.

The name means “dear one” in Bengali and gives mothers and their families important advice on maternal health and childbirth. Because of the lack of access to quality care in health centres, this advice can mean the difference between life and death for expectant mothers and their children. Nasreen Sultana, a new mother in a village in Tangail District, tells IRIN that Aponjon has given her a lot of advice on maternal health issues and helped her to have a safe pregnancy.

Tailored approach

Aponjon uses both SMS messages and voice recordings, in order to overcome the high levels of female illiteracy in Bangladesh. Right now it has more than 350 different messages that can vary from very straightforward instructions to more entertaining skits, which help make advice more engaging for users. The range of different subjects covered and the varied styles of message mean that it is approachable and relevant for as many women as possible.

This service has even been able to engage husbands and the wider family, who are unable to access information through medical centres. Since launching in 2012, 500,000 people have subscribed to the programme across Bangladesh and it is hoped that this number will grow. Since deploying resources and staff in rural Bangladesh is difficult, Aponjon, and projects like it, can play an essential role in ensuring equal access to medical services for all.

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