Talking books used to help improve health care in Afghanistan

Based on popular LeapPad books for U.S. children

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Computer-based talking books like those used to teach U.S. children reading, geography and math are being adapted to provide basic health information to people in Afghanistan who can't read or write. The Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., to develop the interactive health care manuals.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has visited Afghanistan three times since 2001 to review and evaluate the health needs of the Afghan people, especially women. HHS provides financial aid to the Rabia Balkhi Hospital in Kabul and other clinics serving women in Afghanistan.

Thompson said in a statement that the talking books will "be especially helpful in Afghanistan, where almost 80% of women cannot read or write, and where infant and child mortality, as well as maternal mortality are all shockingly high. We want to help Afghan women and families to improve the health in their country rapidly, and these 'talking books' will be an important tool in reaching that goal."

The 42-page interactive books deliver health information through point-and-touch technology and are available in Afghanistan's two major languages, Dari and Pashto. Users point and touch pictures in the book and the book speaks, incorporating a literacy tool with the health information.

The books, based on Leapfrog's LeapPad interactive books, deliver information on 19 personal health subjects, including diet, childhood immunization, pregnancy, breast-feeding, sanitation and water-boiling, treatment of injuries and burns, and preventing disease.

Jim Marggraff, LeapFrog's executive vice president for worldwide content, said the LeapPad uses plain paper as an interface to a computer equipped with a proprietary chip developed by the company. Each book used in a LeapPad comes with a data cartridge, which synchronizes the paper book with the cartridge through a touch-sensitive screen the book is placed on. When a user touches text or pictures on the page, the book "reads" the text through a MIDI interface connected to the cartridge through the computer chip.

Marggraff said the LeapPad, which measures 9 by 12 in., sells for $39 in the U.S. He declined to provide a price for the LeapPad used in Afghanistan but said the entire cost of the HHS program in Afghanistan was $1.5 million for 20,000 LeapPads and a similar number of 42-page manuals. HHS has already distributed 2,000 LeapPads in Afghanistan and is evaluating data on usage and the impact of the technology on health in that country to determine the next round of distribution.

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