Unleashing Information Technology to defeat COVID-19

Africa Link Special Reports

Initiative builds on current efforts to disseminate health messages through the joint WHO-ITU BeHe@lthy BeMobile initiative
SWITZERLAND: The World Health Organization (WHO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), with support from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)​, are set to work with telecommunication companies to text people directly on their mobile phones with vital health messaging to help protect them from COVID-19. These text messages will reach billions of people that aren’t able to connect to the internet for information.

Now more than ever, technology must ensure that everyone can access the information they need. The collaboration will start in the Asia Pacific region and then roll out globally. The goal is to reach everyone with vital health messages, whatever their connectivity level. An estimated 3.6 billion people remain offline, with most people who are unconnected living in low-income countries, where an average of just two out of every ten people are online.

ITU and WHO call on all telecommunication companies worldwide to join this initiative to help unleash the power of communication technology to save lives from COVID-19. This initiative builds on current efforts to disseminate health messages through the joint WHO-ITU BeHe@lthy BeMobile initiative.

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is the first pandemic in human history where technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, productive and connected while being physically apart.

Health workers are utilizing telemedicine to diagnose patients and hospitals rely on being connected to coordinate and triage them. Resilient and trustworthy telecommunication networks and services are essential, as more countries, companies and individuals turn to digital technologies to respond to and cope with the impact of COVID-19.

Building on their longstanding collaboration, ITU and WHO are committed to identifying and scaling best evidence-based digital health solutions and to leveraging frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data to diagnose, contain and predict outbreaks better and faster

What is the BeHe@lthy BeMobile initiative and its objectives?

There is growing recognition that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) dominate health care needs and expenditure in all developed and most low and middle-income countries. They are also the biggest killers. Heart diseases, strokes, cancers, diabetes, and chronic lung disease cause an estimated 36 million deaths every year. Most low and middle-income countries are now facing a double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases, and the urgency of addressing this problem has already been expressed by a UN Political Declaration in 2011. To bring this into context, the only other time in history that the UN General Assembly convened to discuss a health issue was for AIDS. 

This new initiative is a unique joint project between the UN health and telecommunications agencies to use mobile technology, in particular text messaging and apps, to help member states combat the growing burden of NCDs. Mobile phones have already been successfully used in different health fields, improving access to health services, training health workers, and assist individuals to manage their diseases. They are also extremely cost-effective. A number of countries have also used mobile technology to monitor and control NCD risk factors. This initiative will take successful pilots to the world stage through a global UN, private sector and government partnership dedicated to providing mobile solutions for NCDs.

Main strategic objectives

  • Scale up already successful and cost effective technologies for NCDs, which have been proven at a pilot level and make them available for the world.
  • Harness the “best” technology in the world to make it available to Member States to help them address their burden of Non-communicable diseases by validating technology for results, quality assurance and cost effectiveness.
  • Help develop cost effective tools and devices, and innovative solutions, to help reduce the global burden of NCDs.
  • Strengthen the capacity of local stakeholders towards optimal and efficient use of available resources.
  • Create standards and guiding principles that would assist governments and citizens to quickly access and adopt the new tools and devices.
  • Showcase the synergy between UN agencies, private sector and government institutions.
  • By focusing on the WHO “best buys” for NCDs, this initiative will contribute to saving millions of lives and reduce the economic burden to society due to NCDs.​​

Which are the target countries?

Eight countries will be targeted in four years. Countries will be selected representing different regions, income levels and demonstrating high disease burdens and political commitment. Decisions will be made by the WHO-ITU Steering Committee on which countries to select and why.

Costa Rica has been officially selected as the first country, and the government has chosen to focus on mobile technology for smoking prevention and helping smokers quit. The Ministry of Health has already committed significant local resources to support the cessation programme and to promote healthy smokeless lifestyles using mobile and social media in collaboration with local partners including ministries of health, ICT and education, Institute of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the Social Security Fund and ​the Costa Rican Institute of Sport and Recreation among others.