Text messages to mothers improve early infant HIV diagnosis rates in Kenya and Mozambique

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Use of text messaging significantly improved the rate of early infant diagnosis (EID) among HIV-positive pregnant women enrolled in a prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programme in Kenya, researchers reported in a poster at the 7th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention last week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In this randomised controlled trial, postpartum retention also improved significantly in the intervention group compared to the control group: 19.6% (38/194) and 11.8% (22/187) respectively, yet the overall proportion of women attending remained low.

The availability of effective antiretroviral treatment (ART) for prevention of mother-to-child transmission and expansion of ART and access to PMTCT services in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa has resulted in considerable declines in transmission rates. For example, Botswana and South Africa have reduced transmission rates to under 5%; without any intervention, transmission rates would range between 25 and 40%.


control group

A group of participants in a trial who receive standard treatment, or no treatment at all, rather than the experimental treatment which is being tested. Also known as a control arm.


The result of a statistical test which tells us whether the results of a study are likely to be due to chance and would not be confirmed if the study was repeated. All p-values are between 0 and 1; the most reliable studies have p-values very close to 0. A p-value of 0.001 means that there is a 1 in 1000 probability that the results are due to chance and do not reflect a real difference. A p-value of 0.05 means there is a 1 in 20 probability that the results are due to chance. When a p-value is 0.05 or below, the result is considered to be ‘statistically significant’. Confidence intervals give similar information to p-values but are easier to interpret. 

mother-to-child transmission (MTCT)

Transmission of HIV from a mother to her unborn child in the womb or during birth, or to infants via breast milk. Also known as vertical transmission.

middle income countries

The World Bank classifies countries according to their income: low, lower-middle, upper-middle and high. There are around 50 lower-middle income countries (mostly in Africa and Asia) and around 60 upper-middle income countries (in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean).

loss to follow up

In a research study, participants who drop out before the end of the study. In routine clinical care, patients who do not attend medical appointments and who cannot be contacted.

Even with better access to ART, PMTCT services are still under used. For PMTCT services to be effective, an integrated continuum of care comprising maternal counselling and testing, CD4 count to determine ART eligibility, starting and monitoring ART, care at labour and delivery, infant ART and cotrimoxazole prophylaxis, early infant diagnosis (EID) and ART for HIV-positive infants are all needed.

Overall, the numbers of children in need of ART and getting it have increased. Yet, in most resource-poor settings, only three-in-ten children eligible for ART are getting it.

Women are often diagnosed late in pregnancy – maternal diagnosis is the key to access to PMTCT services and prevention of new paediatric HIV infections. Yet only an estimated 35% of pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries get an HIV test.

EID is a key step to linking children born to HIV-positive mothers to care and treatment, so reducing death and disease. Retaining mothers and their infants in care, especially after birth, is a singularly critical issue. Studies have reported loss-to-follow-up (LTFU) from PMTCT programmes ranging from 43% to as high as 75%.

According to the latest UNAIDS progress report, only four countries – Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia – provided EID to over 50% of children born to HIV-positive women. Five – Angola, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Nigeria – had coverage under 10%.

The researchers wanted to see whether interactive text messaging would improve rates of clinic attendance and early infant diagnosis.

HIV-positive pregnant women over 18 years of age enrolled in a PMTCT programme were randomised to receive either SMS text messages (195) or the usual care (193).

Messages were developed according to the constructs of the Health Belief Model:

  • Perceived susceptibility – an individual’s assessment of the risk of the medical consequences of not attending clinic and infant not being tested.
  • Perceived severity – individual’s assessment of seriousness of this and consequences.
  • Perceived barriers – an individual's assessment of the influences that facilitate or discourage adoption of the promoted behaviour.
  • Perceived benefits - an individual's assessment of the positive consequences of adopting the behavior.

Depending on gestational age those in the SMS group received up to eight text messages before delivery and six after. Primary outcomes were maternal attendance at the clinic after giving birth and infant HIV testing by DNA PCR by eight weeks after birth.

In total, there were outcome data for 381 (98.2%) women, with a median age of 27 years. At baseline, median gestational age was 34 weeks (IQR: 32-36). 

Close to 20% (38/194) of those in the SMS group attended a maternal postpartum clinic, compared to 11.8% (22/187) in the control. Those in the control group had over one and half times the increased risk of not attending clinic after giving birth, RR 1.66, 95% CI: 1.02-2.70.

Altogether, 92% (172/187) of infants in the SMS group were tested within eight weeks, compared to 85.1% (154/181) in the control group, RR, 1.08, 95% CI: 1.00-1.16.

Similarly, in another randomised controlled trial, researchers found a structured series of SMS reminders sent to HIV-positive pregnant women, followed for twelve months while attending five clinics in Maputo Province (one urban, two peri-urban and two rural), resulted in a significant uptake of EID at eight weeks, 77.1% compared to 70.9%, p=0.026.

Of the 1012 HIV-positive pregnant women interviewed, 490 (47%) were ineligible: either they did not own a cell phone (35%) or they were illiterate (21%). Of the 468 births (90%), only 315 infants were followed up until eight weeks.

Institutional births in peri-urban sites also increased significantly, compared to the control group, at 97 and 88%, p=0.018, respectively.

Mothers getting SMS reminders whose child was born anywhere other than at the study centres were more likely to bring their infants for EID: 75% compared to 38%, p=0.034.

These findings lend further support to mobile technology as a cost-effective, easily accessible tool with a potential for increased adherence and improved EID. In addition, the researchers from the Maputo study highlight the need for more research into how best to reach rural, illiterate women with such health interventions.


Odeny TA et al. Texting improves testing: a randomised controlled trial of text messaging to increase postpartum attendance and rates of early infant diagnosis of HIV. 7th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention, Kuala Lumpur, poster TULBPE43, 2013.

Davey DJ et al. Improved uptake of institutional birth and early infant HIV testing following SMS reminders among PMTCT patients in Mozambique. 7th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention, Kuala Lumpur, poster TULBPE42, 2013.