By Emma Batha
LONDON (AlertNet) - The British Red Cross is to use text messaging to save lives in Sierra Leone, using innovative technology first tried out in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.
The aid agency, which aims to reach one million people within the first month, will send out information on disease outbreaks and other emergencies like fires, floods and landslides. The West African country, which is still recovering from a long civil war, suffers more than 20 natural disasters a year.
The two-way system, launched on Tuesday, enables the Red Cross to reach 36,000 people an hour, and allows people to let the aid agency know what is happening on the ground and where the needs are greatest.
“This system is a real life-saver. We can use it to warn people when emergencies or outbreaks start and give them vital information on preventing diseases like malaria and cholera,” said Red Cross project manager Sharon Reader.
“Harnessing technology in this way is really helping the Red Cross to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our aid operations,” Reader said.
The system, the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA), was developed in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and enables the Red Cross - with the support of local mobile phone operators – to send out blanket SMS alerts to people in precise geographical areas.
Sierra Leone is only the second country in which the TERA has been launched, but there are plans to roll it out to 40 countries.
Around 100 million text messages have been sent in Haiti so far, including hurricane warnings, advice on cholera treatment and information on where rape victims can get help.
A recent evaluation found 96 percent of people thought the texts were useful and most said they acted on the information they received.
In Sierra Leone, the system will immediately start disseminating information on malaria, which kills over 16,000 a year and is the country’s largest preventable cause of death.
The Red Cross also hopes to reduce the death toll from other diseases including yellow fever, lassa fever, meningitis and cholera.
“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 Leonean Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana.
Around 70 percent of Sierra Leoneans have access to a mobile phone and the number is growing each year.