New UN initiative uses mobile technology to help fight non-communicable diseases

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and wife Yoo Soon-taek meet a TB patient during their visit to the Institute of Respiratory Medicine in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. UN Photo/E. Debebe

17 October 2012 – Two United Nations agencies today launched a new initiative called ‘m-Health’ to use mobile technology, particularly text messaging and applications, to help tackle non-communicable illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and chronic respiratory diseases.

“Technological innovations are changing the landscape of disease prevention and control. 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,” said the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Hamadoun I. Touré.

Through the initiative, the ITU and the World Health Organization (WHO) will provide evidence-based and operational guidance to encourage partners worldwide, especially governments, to implement m-Health interventions to address prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and their common risk factors – tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol.

Non-communicable diseases are some of the leading causes of death and disease in both developed countries and emerging economies alike, according to a news release issued by the agencies. They dominate health care needs and expenditures in most developed as well as most low- and middle-income countries.

Of the 57 million deaths globally, NCDs contribute to an estimated 36 million deaths every year, including 14 million people dying between the ages of 30 and 70. Using mobile telephone technology, m-Health practices can help save lives, reduce illness and disability, and reduce healthcare costs significantly.

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

The initiative will build on current projects, existing health systems and platforms, and will involve partnerships between governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.

“WHO is already using mobile devices to carry out surveillance of non-communicable diseases and their risk factors,” said WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health, Oleg Chestnov.

“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,” he stated.

WHO and ITU member countries 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.

The new initiative will initially run for a four-year period and focus on prevention, treatment and enforcement to control non-communicable diseases.

It is currently being discussed in Dubai at ITU Telecom World 2012, where leaders and pioneers in the corporate, research and academic sectors are meeting with high-ranking policy-makers and regulators, with the aim of sharing ideas on the future of global telecommunications.


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