April 3, 2008 / 12:27 AM / in 10 years

"Telemedicine" links Africans to Indian expertise

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Troubled by a difficult case, doctor Asfaw Atnafu decides to seek advice.

<p>Doctor Asfaw Atnafu, head of telemedicine at the Black Lion hospital in Addis Ababa, uses a high-speed Internet connection to communicate with doctors at Care Hospital Hyderabad in India, April 1, 2008. REUTERS/Barry Malone</p>

He walks into a consulting room at Black Lion Hospital in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa and greets a doctor at the Care Hospital in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad.

Linked by a high-speed Internet connection, the doctors study X-rays and laboratory results.

Flipping between charts, they use light pens to point out important features. They can see each other in windows on their screens, while medical charts fill the rest of the display.

India launched this “telemedicine” project in Ethiopia last July at a cost of $2.13 million. The project links hospitals in Ethiopia with the Hyderabad-based Care Group of Hospitals, India’s leading cardiac institute.

The scheme is part of the pan-African e-network, a 5.42 billion-rupee ($135.6-million) joint initiative between the African Union and India which was launched in Ethiopia last year to improve Internet links and communication.

India is likely to highlight its prowess in information communication technology (ICT) as a way of strengthening ties at summit of African heads of state in New Delhi on April 8 and 9 -- the first meeting of its kind.

“By using telemedicine, a country like Ethiopia, a Third World country with a problem with funding and manpower, can benefit greatly,” radiologist Asfaw said.

There is just one doctor for every 37,000 people in Ethiopia -- sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country and a land where vast distances separate rural communities.

“Rural parts of the country are devoid of medical care. This technology has already helped, but its scope is immense,” said Asfaw.

Under the scheme, the Black Lion, Ethiopia’s only teaching hospital, has also been linked to the remote Nekempte Hospital, 300 km (185 miles) west of Addis Ababa.

“We want Africans to share expertise with each other and for areas with few doctors to be linked to hospitals in cities so doctors there can fill the gap,” said Ratan Singh, project director for the Indian government agency responsible for implementing the technology and training Ethiopians to use it.

Ethiopia’s health problems are mirrored across Africa where doctors and nurses are often overworked and underpaid, villagers have to walk miles to the nearest clinic and drugs and treatment are often beyond the means of ordinary people.

Aggravating these problems, rich countries are poaching so many African health workers that a team of international disease experts recently said the practice should be viewed as a crime.

CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGY

The Indian project aims to ease some of these burdens but it also dovetails with the country’s drive to deepen its links with resource-rich Africa to secure energy supplies and markets.

<p>Doctor Asfaw Atnafu, head of telemedicine at the Black Lion hospital in Addis Ababa, uses a high-speed Internet connection to communicate with doctors at Care Hospital Hyderabad in India, April 1, 2008. REUTERS/Barry Malone</p>

With ambitious plans to connect Africa’s 53 countries using satellites and fiber-optic links with each other and with India, India hopes TO sell more telecoms equipment and services to Africa’s fledgling ICT markets before rival China steps in.

Since the one-year pilot project began in Ethiopia, doctors at the Black Lion hospital have used the link more than 50 times to discuss cases with Indian doctors, Asfaw said.

The Care Group is also in talks to extend the telemedicine program to Nigeria and Libya.

Indian officials estimate that 100 patients in Africa have benefited from the pan-African e-network which is plugged in to 12 specialist hospitals in India.

The Ethiopian project uses fiber-optic technology and a satellite hub is being built in Senegal, to be used once the pilot ends.

<p>An Ethiopian woman inside a clinic in Bahir Dar, March 10, 2007. Ethiopia's health problems are mirrored across Africa where doctors and nurses are often overworked and underpaid, villagers have to walk miles to the nearest clinic and drugs and treatment are often beyond the means of ordinary people. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte</p>

“Indian doctors have been very excited by this development,” said India’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Gurjit Singh. “They see it as providing the cutting edge of Indian healthcare and education at low-cost to Africans.”

India plans to fund the projects and train Africans for five years before handing the scheme over to African countries.

LONG-TERM TIES

At the Black Lion, patients throng the corridors and rooms, the lucky ones sitting on wooden benches while others lean against the peeling walls and some lie on the floor.

Cocooned from the chaos, the four rooms housing the Indian-funded telemedicine equipment are an oasis of calm.

Computer servers whirr in a corner as Indian technicians ensure things work smoothly and chat to colleagues back home.

Hyderabad’s Care Hospital has also trained 12 Tanzanian surgeons, nurses and technicians in the past year, and treated children suffering congenital heart problems free of charge.

“Our doctors will go there (to Tanzania) and make the local surgeons conduct surgeries in their presence. This will boost their morale,” L. V. Rajendra Kumar, who heads business development for the Care Group of Hospitals, told Reuters.

Ambassador Singh said India’s involvement in these projects was separate from its attempts to capture a share of the continent’s resources.

“We are the beneficiaries of a relationship between Africa and India that is based on long-term historical friendship,” he said. “Colonization is a one-way street but I think the India-Africa relationship is most clearly two-way.”

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/ )

Additional reporting by Reuters in Hyderabad; Editing by Katie Nguyen and Clar Ni Chonghaile

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