Interactive talking books delivered to Afghanistan

The United States Department of Health and Human Services has announced the delivery of thousands of interactive women's health books built with the LeapPad learning system technology to Afghanistan and an additional $6 million in aid to improve the health of the Afghan people.

Announced in August, and under development for nearly two years, the talking books provide important personal health information designed especially to help Afghan women who cannot read or write. Joining Secretary Thompson in delivering the LeapPad systems was Bhavin Shah, Director of New Business Development from LeapFrog Enterprises. The announcement was made at the Rabia Balki Hospital in downtown Kabul.

"Each time I visit Afghanistan I am touched by the warmth of the people and the hope in their eyes," Secretary Thompson said. "It's heartening to leave Afghans with this talking book, a lasting legacy, from the American people. I hope that these books and the new funding will be a signal to the Afghan people that Americans will remain by their side as they grow as a nation."

Secretary Thompson delivered the books and announced the new funding during his fourth visit to Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. During previous visits, Secretary Thompson reviewed and evaluated the health needs of the Afghan people and helped target assistance to people throughout the country -- especially Afghan women, whose health care was virtually ignored under the Taliban. Based on his fact-finding trips, Secretary Thompson led the campaign to engage HHS as a financial and instructional supporter of the Rabia Balkhi Hospital and associated clinics that serve women in Afghanistan.

The additional $6 million in fiscal year 2005 funding brings the total of HHS assistance to Afghanistan to nearly $20 million since 9/11. In addition, HHS in cooperation with the Department of Defense, completely overhauled the Rabia Balki hospital in 2002. Once that was completed, in partnership with DoD, the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs, and non-government partner International Medical Corps, HHS provided clinical and management training for hospital staff, and much-needed pharmaceuticals and supplies, and eventually established this partnership with LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc.

Developed jointly by HHS and LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc., the 42-page interactive books deliver important basic health information through state-of-the-art audio and point and touch technology. Books are available in both of Afghanistan's two major languages, Dari and Pashto. Illiteracy is a common problem in Afghanistan where only half of the men and one in five women can read and write. The book allows users to point to pictures, then the book speaks to the user incorporating a literacy tool with health information. Information is conveyed in an accessible story-like format that allows the reader to interact with recorded conversations conveyed in the book through pictures, audio, and in text form -- for those who can read.

"We are proud to be part of this unique outreach to the people of Afghanistan," said Bhavin Shah, Director of New Business Development for LeapFrog. "Our LeapPad technology was designed from its inception to provide an engaging learning experience and it lends itself to unique opportunities, such as this important Afghan women's health book. Knowledge is liberating, and with key health information in hand, we think this offering can make a difference in people's lives in Afghanistan."

This new Afghan talking book solution is easy to use and has been field tested to be physically rugged and educationally effective in providing important health information to the people of Afghanistan. As in most cultures, women are the health leaders in Afghan families, so the Afghan talking books were developed specifically for them. However, HHS and LeapFrog had to adapt the tools for a population that is predominately illiterate.

Prior to Afghanistan liberation, the Taliban refused to allow women and girls the opportunity to go to school or to see a doctor. Consequently, almost 80 percent of women cannot read or write, an estimated one in four children dies before his or her fifth birthday, and there are 1,600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births (as compared to the United States rate of 7.5 deaths per 100,000). By providing important public health and personal nutrition and hygiene information in this way, these 'talking books' will be an important tool in improving the overall health of Afghans.

The book presents more than 350 items of recorded information concerning 19 personal health subjects. Basic health information covered includes diet, childhood immunization, pregnancy, breastfeeding, sanitation and water boiling, treating injuries and burns, and preventing disease. The books convey everyday household situations, as well as information specific to child and reproductive health. LeapFrog's patented LeapPad technology uses stories that convey basic health lessons to bring the information to life for the readers.

HHS will initially disseminate 2,000 books to Afghan households and primary health care centers through an initial distribution program used to evaluate both usability and behavior change measures. HHS will use the results of this initial distribution to determine the best dissemination method for the 20,000 books that the United States is giving to the people of Afghanistan.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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