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Helping South Africans Stay on HIV Meds

South Africa has the world’s largest HIV epidemic: in 2015, an estimated 7 million South Africans were living with the virus, according to the Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS. With treatment, patients can stay healthy— but every year about 5% of African patients default on their medication regimen, reports a nonprofit cofounded by Majahonkhe Shabangu (Swaziland, Waterford Kamhlaba UWC, Harvard ’14).

At Harvard, Majahonkhe and three fellow students had an idea. Couldn’t a simple system based in text messaging help patients keep up with their meds? The three designed a project, entered it in Harvard’s Innovation Challenge, and won the $5,000 Senior Social Start-up Prize. They used the money to create Sawubona Health, which has so far run its program with high effectiveness at two sites in rural South Africa.

In the Zulu language, “Sawubona” means “I see you” — and the program sends HIV patients “simple, supportive, personalized, and low-cost weekly text messages,” says www.sawubonahealth.org. After the service was launched in September 2013 at Don McKenzie Hospital near Durban, over 1,500 patients enrolled, and 85% remain subscribed. At a second location, opened in 2014 at the Umndeni Care Program in the village of KwaXimba, Sawubona and researchers from Harvard Medical School found that over 97% of patients said the program had helped them remember their medications.

“Meanwhile, I just completed a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Surrey in England,” reports Majahonkhe, who continues to run Sawubona as its part-time president. “I’m in Swaziland at the moment, revisiting a project on food insecurity and HIV/AIDS that I started in 2014 in my community. The project continues to assist local farmers as well as orphaned and vulnerable children.

“I remain committed to making a difference, and have continued to search for better ways to improve health for the global poor.”