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Mobile phone companies have announced a new US$10 million initiative to help health workers in Africa deliver quality services to HIV/AIDS patients.

The Phones for Health project, launched on Tuesday (13 February), will equip workers in remote areas of Rwanda with mobile phones and software for exchanging information on patients.

Paul Meyer, chairman of US-based Voxiva who designed the software, said workers would also be able to order medicines, receive news alerts and download treatment guidelines and training materials.

According to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR), health workers in remote areas of the country rely on paper records — often out of date — to track diseases' spread and have no transport for gathering field data or collecting medicines.

The new project aims to make things easier. Workers in the field can use phones to record patient information and send it to a central database via a high-speed network or text message. The information is then available to health officials via the Internet and can be sent to field staff by text message.

If the project in Rwanda is successful, it will be extended to other African countries, as well as Asia, and will also address other diseases like tuberculosis and malaria.

The initiative is a partnership between the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Accenture Development Partnership, and mobile phone operators.

It builds on a successful two-year pilot project by the GSMA and Voxiva in Rwanda. Tests were conducted in the country's eastern province in collaboration with the NISR, who used the software to record patient information normally collected on paper forms.

Rob Conway, chief executive of the GSMA, said the software demonstrated how governments can use the expanding mobile infrastructure to enhance their citizens' health.

The GSMA estimates that mobile phone coverage in Africa could reach 85 per cent by 2010.