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Internet access helps Zambian town's doctors care for patients

Diseases considered easy to treat in many parts of the world, such as diarrhea and measles, can take on lethal dimensions in Africa. But one hospital in Zambia is getting help treating patients from the Internet.

Patients lining up at the Macha pharmacy

The medical drugs for Macha's pharmacy in rural Zambia are ordered via the internet

The benefits of moving to the Zambian town of Macha aren't immediately obvious. But for general practitioner Jonathan Sitali being some 300 kilometers (186 miles) southwest of the capital, Lusaka, had one clear advantage over other cities.

"I thought I could combine e-studies with work," he said. "I started looking for a place to work which had facilities for free or very cheap Internet, and Macha turned out to be one of those."

In fact, people in Macha work to stay in touch with the rest of the world, both in a physical sense - explaining why they built an airstrip for light aircraft - as well as in the virtual sense.

The city's population of 30,000 live in the heart of Zambian bush, but they're among the country's most Internet-savvy. Access to the World Wide Web's keeps the people of Macha connected to the larger world, and it is also keeping them healthy.

Learning online

Medical doctor Jonathan Sitali

Doctor Jonathan Sitali studies health management online

Thanks to online classes, Sitali is taking part in a health management master's program at the University of Liverpool with doctors from Tanzania, Nigeria and Europe.

In the same hospital, nursing director Edgar Susiku is studying ultrasound diagnosis in an online course. It's a subject he wouldn't be able to enroll in anywhere in Zambia. Soon said he hopes to be able to use the ultrasound equipment that was donated to the Macha hospital and has sat unused for years.

He'll only have to travel to a classroom for the final exams.

"I check my assignments and submit them online," he said of the course he's doing with the Burwin Institute in Canada. "That has made it easier to take part."

The hospital worked closely with Johns Hopkins University in the United States on malaria research and it was this cooperative experience that led to the hospital and then in 2004 the rest of the city to go online.

Internet a 'necessity'

Dutch doctor Janneke van Dijk, who went to Macha as part of the malaria research team, said when she first traveled to the city in 2003 the situation was grim.

"When we came there were no communications facilities, no mobile phone network, no Internet," she said, adding that only so called bush mail - short messages sent by radio - were available. "But to be able to do research you need to be able to communicate and access information so that was one of the major tasks."

She said the Internet is a necessity, both for her own work and for the community to continue developing.

"The Internet, of course, helps you gain knowledge and be aware of what kind of developments are happening," she said. "You can hardly do any research or receive any funding if you don't have any means of communication."

Wooden tower and satellite dish with man standing in front of it

A satellite dish links Macha to the web

But it's Africa's sheer size that makes the Internet an even more valuable tool. Despite being isolated, places like Macha are able to tap in to knowledge from the other side of the world.

No online cure-all

The people of Macha, however, are still waiting for another technological breakthrough: telemedicine. At the moment patients often have to fly to Lusaka for tests, which waste valuable time the seriously ill don't have, Susiku said.

"In all of Zambia we have four radiology institutes," he said. "Telemedicine could really help us take care of patients by speeding up and improving our diagnosis of patients."

So far, only one hospital in Zambia, the Mtendere Mission Hospital in Kafue - has access to UK-supported telemedicine technology.

But there's another problem the Internet won't be able to solve. Macha has to become a long-term destination for doctors rather than just a stopover. Sitali said when he has passed his exams he hopes to open a clinic in Lusaka, where he'll be able to earn more with his new skills.

"Stay here? No, I'll use this knowledge to go somewhere else," he said.

Author: Ute Schaeffer /st
Editor: Anke Rasper

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