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Scientists Hoping to Beat African Disease With Technology


Scientists in Niger, the world's poorest country, are using a new high-tech satellite transmission system to help with rural health care. The network of transmitting stations can track disease outbreaks, report the onset of drought, and even send alerts when medicine stocks are low. Joe Bavier visited a pilot clinic in southwestern Niger.

At the local clinic in the village of Dantchandou, not far from the Niger River, an infant receives a check-up.

In 2005, Niger ranked at the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index. The Dantchandou clinic, with its two exam rooms, serves 47,000 people in 62 different villages.

Malaria and meningitis are common here. Infant malnutrition is widespread. But Dantchandou is part of a program being tried out in Niger.

In the corner of the admissions room, stands a small, white box with a screen and keypad. Forty-four identical units are positioned across the country as part of a project of the Global Fund, which finances plans to combat AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria around the world.

The system, known as Argos, takes coded data entered into the keypad by local staff, and transmits it to a satellite. The information is then beamed back down to the central medical headquarters known as CERMES, in the capital Niamey, where it is collected by scientists.

Information on patients is classified by age, illness, and location. Data on environmental conditions are included. Local staff can even send alerts when medications run low.

Moussa Boubacar is the head nurse at the Dantchandou clinic.

The advantage of the unit, he says, is that it allows medical personnel to communicate directly with headquarters, and transmit the data on a weekly basis. It is very important, for example, he says, if there is an epidemic. Headquarters can be alerted and they can react at a central level.

The system has already proved itself effective in tracking and responding to last years cholera outbreak in Niger. Nurses in the bush were able to send daily, and even hourly, updates of the number of people affected by the deadly disease along with specific case information and exact location.

But CERMES scientist Jean-Bernard Duchenau hopes Argos will be most effective in battling epidemics before they happen.

"For the moment, its for the comprehension of epidemics," he explained. "To try to see why there are seasonal trends in meningitis, for example, or malaria. What is the real link and how can we build a model for a warning system."

CERMES scientists, using data transmitted via Argos, are currently testing a hypothesis linking dust levels to meningitis. The hope is that, in understanding the conditions that facilitate the disease, medical scientists will be better equipped to prevent outbreaks.

Fed into computers at headquarters in Niamey, the data can be transformed quickly into graphs. Maps can be generated to plot where individual cases of a disease occur over an area as small as 10 square kilometers.

And its relatively low cost, Duchenau hopes, will make it an economical way to track health problems in poor, rural countries around the world.

"The whole cost, including the batteries and all, is less than $3,000 per unit, which seems perhaps a little high, but is less expensive than a radio transmitter," he said.

Several African countries have expressed interest in the system, Duchenau says.

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