Net access aids malaria study
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Apr 17, 2000
Malaria is one of the toughest diseases for scientists to battle because
it is most prevalent in remote areas of Africa, where electronic communications
are either outdated or nonexistent.
Villages such as Ifakara and Amani in Tanzania, a country on Africa's
east coast that borders the Indian Ocean and is more than twice the size
of California, are ravaged by the disease, in large part because it is so
difficult for the medical community to reach those isolated locations. The
only road to Ifakara, which doesn't have a single telephone, is impassable
during the rainy season. And Amani, located on a hillside 1,000 meters above
sea level, has just one telephone a hand-cranked type that works sporadically.
So how can scientists working in those remote spots help develop a vaccine
for malaria if they can't easily share their findings with other researchers?
A new program being led by the National Library of Medicine, part of
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is making a difference. As part of its Multilateral Initiative on Malaria (MIM), NLM created a real-time,
satellite-based research network for scientists working in Africa.
"There are some areas in Africa where people get one infected bite per night,
and there is nowhere else better than there to research," said Mark Bennett,
the main technical consultant for the project. "By putting the Internet
in there, [scientists] can perform much better, leading-edge [trials] wherever
they're willing to go because they know they will have access, can publish
remotely and are not replicating research done elsewhere. They can interact
a great deal more easily and turn things around much quicker."
The MIM network is up and running complete with access to the World
Wide Web and e-mail in five research sites in Kenya and Ghana. Researchers
in Ifakara and Amani will have access to the network beginning next month.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Redwing Satellite
Solutions, a telecommunications company located near London, are helping
foot the bill for the MIM network. NLM is mainly responsible for project
oversight, network installation and trouble-shooting.
"The [NLM] feels very strongly about cutting off a significant piece we
can handle and doing it well," said Julia Royall, a special expert appointed
by NLM to head the project. "Africa is an interesting, but very challenging
place to work, and you can't set a lot of goals. Sustainability and partnership
are the big words for us."
Royall and NLM hand-picked Bennett for the project because of his previous
experiences in helping to establish Internet connectivity in parts of Africa
where none previously existed.
Bennett has more than 15 years experience in telecom projects on the
continent, including 12 years as systems manager and then director of the
computer center at the University of Zambia. While there, he established
ZamNet Communication Systems Ltd., the first Internet service provider in
sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa, before relocating back to England
in late 1996. Bennett is currently based in Cambridge, where he launched
AfriConnect, a consulting firm that specializes in African telecommunications
Bennett masterminded the strategic plan that made connecting the remote
locations feasible and affordable. He simplified the network design and
minimized the amount of space required to support the remote sites through
the use of very small-aperture terminals. VSATs use satellite ground systems,
one to three meters in size, located at each site (see "Out of Africa").
"There is huge potential for this kind of technology in Africa," Bennett
said. "It's new, but it's extremely appropriate because there are no copper-wire
phone lines in much of Africa, and half the people there have never touched
a phone and never will. People are already contacting us about getting
into the systems that are going up, but the question is the rate to do it
so it remains sustainable."
Bennett said he is confident that the network will have a significant
impact on the development of a vaccine for malaria a disease that attacks
the body's red blood cells and can be fatal without proper treatment. Only
certain types of mosquitoes, which are found worldwide in countries with
tropical and subtropical climates, spread the disease.
"You can't trial vaccines without a very quick way of getting back to
the people [who] are working on the drugs," Bennett said. "If you have Internet
connectivity, you can send images, slides and descriptions of results immediately,
and that can only really be done over the Internet."
Another benefit of the program is that it is "strengthening the capacity
of the African researchers," Royall said. "Researchers from the U.S., the
U.K. and Europe set up outposts and then go home. This is about empowering
folks who are there to make a change in health in the cities, which is not
always a strong interest of outsiders."
Royall said future research will be done to determine the impact of
information technology on the morbidity and mortality rates of malaria in