updated 2/13/2007 5:00:40 PM ET 2007-02-13T22:00:40

The U.S. government and several mobile phone companies have announced a $10 million initiative that takes advantage of cell phone networks to improve health care in the developing world.

The partnership Phones-for-Health includes network operators, handset makers, technology companies, health groups and government agencies.

"The explosive spread of mobile phone networks across the developing world has created a unique opportunity to significantly transform how countries can tackle global health challenges," said Dr. Howard Zucker, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization.

The program equips health workers in the field with a Motorola Inc.-made phones equipped with an application that lets them enter health data on patients. Then that information is securely sent wirelessly to a central database. If the data network is not available, it can be sent via short message service.

The information is then analyzed by the system and made available to health officials on the Internet.

The system also supports the sending of text alerts and other information to staff in the field.

"Health workers will also be able to use the system to order medicine, send alerts, download treatment guidelines, training materials and access other appropriate information," said Paul Meyer, chairman of Voxiva, the company that has designed the software. "Managers at the regional and national level can access information in real-time via a Web-based database."

The partners in the initiative — the GSM Association's Development Fund; the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; Accenture Development Partnership; Motorola Inc., MTN and Voxiva — will initially focus on 10 African countries, building on an existing deployment in Rwanda.

As time passes, the partnership is expected to be extended in Africa and Asia to address diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases.

In some African countries, there is a lack of fixed-line Internet connections and most documents and forms are still filled out on paper.

The GSMA, which represents the world's wireless industry, estimates that more than 60 percent of Africans live in areas with mobile phone coverage, a figure it expects to increase to 85 percent by the end of the decade.

The program has already some success in Rwanda, using a system designed by Washington-based Voxia Inc. called TRACNet. Working with that country's government and the AIDS relief group, the system has been in use for the past two years to help manage Rwanda's HIV and AIDS program.

"This technology is revolutionizing how data is captured in the field," said Dr. Louis Munyakaze, director general of Rwanda's National Institute of Statistics.

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