Life-saving text service launched in Sierra Leone

22 May 2013
By Lorna Sharpe
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Red Cross volunteers in Sierra Leone give advice on preventing malaria. The new text service will back up this work

Red Cross volunteers in Sierra Leone give advice on preventing malaria. The new text service will back up this work

The Red Cross is working with mobile communications providers in Sierra Leone to save lives through the use of an innovative location-targeted SMS system.

Launched in April, the Red Cross and Airtel initiative provides people with information on disease outbreaks and other emergencies such as fires or floods.

Through the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA), the Red Cross can reach 36,000 people an hour at the touch of a button.

“This system is a real life-saver. We can use it to warn people when emergencies or outbreaks start and to give them vital information on preventing diseases like malaria and cholera,” said Sharon Reader, the Red Cross TERA project manager.

“Even better, TERA is a two-way system so we can quickly assess the areas with the greatest need after an emergency, and respond to requests for information on a large-scale.”

Communications business Trilogy International Partners developed TERA in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, to meet the needs of the Red Cross with minimum impact on the host mobile network.

The system uses SMS text messaging because SMS is a basic GSM service, available on any handset and requiring very little bandwidth. It is one of the first services to be restored after a network failure. Moreover, texts are stored on the handset, so recipients can easily share them.

Messages can be targeted at a particular region of even neighbourhood, unlike standard SMS services that require broadcast messages to be delivered to every subscriber on a carrier’s network, so recipients are more likely to take notice.

The system also manages inbound messages, using keyword recognition to send automated responses and to collate information on where aid of various kinds is most needed.

TERA has been in operation in Haiti ever since its first deployment in 2010. Based on its success there, Trilogy has granted the Red Cross a free licence to deploy the system globally, and Sierra Leone is now the second country where it has been launched.

The West African state is still recovering from a long-running civil war that ended in 2002. It is subject to epidemic outbreaks of preventable diseases including yellow fever, cholera, lassa fever and meningitis, and also suffers from more than 20 natural disasters each year, including floods, landslides and bushfires.

“Last year our country was hit by the worst cholera outbreak in 40 years. Simple information could have helped prevent some of the 300 deaths we suffered,” said Sierra Leone’s Vice President Chief Samuel Sam-Sumana.

“We know Sierra Leone has a poor health record and the government is committed to doing something about that. Working with the Sierra Leone Red Cross, Airtel, Comium and SierraTel we can make sure people are armed with the knowledge and tools they need to protect themselves and their families,” he added.

The system will immediately roll out information on preventing malaria, a disease that claims over 16,000 lives in Sierra Leone every year, making it the country’s largest preventable cause of death.

Around 70 per cent of Sierra Leoneans have access to a mobile phone and this number is growing each year in line with the rest of the developing world.

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