Mobile phones help people with diabetes to manage fasting and feasting during Ramadan

June 2014

Mariama Diallo, aged in her sixties, was diagnosed with diabetes ten years ago. Although she is very strict about following a healthy lifestyle, Mariama is always on the look-out for information and advice to help her manage her condition.

  • "Drink one litre of water every morning before you begin fasting."
  • "Take care not to overeat and watch out for foods high in sugar such as dates."
  • "Ask your doctor to adapt the dose and timing of your diabetes medication before you fast."
Mobile device receiving texto to alert on diabetes
WHO/Y. Elbes

Throughout the month of Ramadan, Mariama will receive text messages like these on her mobile phone to help guide her through the month of daytime fasting and evening feasts, which can be particularly challenging for people with diabetes.

These health messages are the first phase of “mDiabetes”, a new project that has been launched in Senegal just in time for the month of Ramadan. Members of the country’s diabetic patient association, health professionals and the general public are being encouraged to sign up to receive these free text messages that aim to increase awareness and help people with diabetes to avoid complications triggered by fasting and feasting.

MDiabetes is the first project established for a French-speaking country under “Be He@lthy Be mobile”, a joint global initiative by WHO and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The initiative supports countries to set up large-scale projects that use mobile technology, in particular text messaging and apps, to control, prevent and manage noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Launched in 2013, the initiative is also working on an mCessation for tobacco programme in Costa Rica, an mCervical cancer programme in Zambia and has plans to roll out mHypertension and mWellness programmes in other countries.

Diabetes numbers on the rise

Diabetes is fast becoming one of the major causes of premature illness and death worldwide. WHO estimates that 347 million people worldwide have diabetes, 90% of whom have type 2 diabetes which is largely caused by excess body weight and physical inactivity.

In countries like Senegal, rapid urbanization and changing lifestyles have resulted in a massive increase in obesity particularly in young people, many of whom are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Based on an estimation that 4-6% of people in Senegal have diabetes, at least 400 000 Senegalese people are living with the disease but only 60 000 of them have been diagnosed and are following treatment in the health system.

Many people do not know that they have diabetes as they are unaware of the causes and symptoms of diabetes, and often have limited access to health services, particularly in rural areas.

Lack of access to diagnosis and management of diabetes can have serious consequences including heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and severe foot sores that may require amputation.

Every year during Ramadan the health authorities in Senegal witness a peak in the urgent hospitalization of people with uncontrolled diabetes.

“Ramadan is a period of high sugar consumption,” says Mr Baye Oumar Guèye, national secretary of the Senegalese Diabetic Support Association and a diabetic himself. “mDiabetes is an essential and welcome initiative that allows people with diabetes to observe the holy month of Ramadan while avoiding the risk of complications.”

Mobile phones in every home

For the past decade, the lack of a stable internet and phone network in developing countries has hampered the use of eHealth to improve access to health care. “A rapid explosion in mobile technology, particularly in Africa, is finally making several kinds of eHealth initiatives possible,” says Mr Hani Eskandar, ICT applications coordinator at the International Telecommunication Union.

In Senegal, 83% of the population has a mobile telephone and 40% of these are smartphones, which are capable of receiving images and videos.

mDiabetes is the first initiative to take advantage of such widespread mobile technology to reach millions of Senegalese people with health information and expand access to expertise and care. The project is a key part of the national plan to fight noncommunicable diseases. It also includes a training module for health workers and will allow for remote consultations and monitoring of patients in rural areas.

The pilot project is expected to trigger more eHealth initiatives in Senegal and serve as a model for other countries in their fight against noncommunicable diseases.

And for the thousands of Senegalese people like Mariama who are living with diabetes, it is hoped that mDiabetes will help them to manage their disease better and improve their quality of life. “I really appreciate this programme and plan to get the most out of it,” she says.

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