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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 08:49 GMT
Hi-tech medi-truck heads to Africa

By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor in Geneva

Beefy monster trucks could be bringing much needed medical expertise into remote areas of Africa.

The Russian Mobile Telemedicine Unit bound for Africa
The hi-tech truck is designed to handle tough terrain
A Russian consortium has come up with a Mobile Telemedicine Unit, housed in a six-wheeled vehicle, designed to travel over the most inhospitable terrain.

The first truck of its kind has been on show at the UN World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva.

"This is a real step towards crossing the digital divide," said Dr Vladimir Tarnopolsky, Director General of Vtana, the consortium behind the truck.

Expensive doctors

The truck has been developed by the government-owned Russian Satellite Communications Company and the telemedicine company, Vitanet.

The idea behind the vehicle is to enable doctors to make virtual house calls in isolated villages, where the nearest health centre could be several days away.

The truck would carry five or six paramedics who would be able to collect information about patients in the field and send it back to a hospital via satellite.

"We visited African countries and saw that the health care situation was really bad, especially in rural areas," explained Dr Tarnopolsky.

"It is too expensive to put highly qualified doctors in every village. What you need are mobile medical units."

Shock-proof casings

The truck carries the equipment needed to provide basic health care as well as carry out mass screenings for diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.

The Russian Mobile Telemedicine Unit bound for Africa
Computerised electrocardiograph, spirometer and microscope
Diesel and solar-powered generator
Thermal insulated body
Satellite antenna
Potable water filtration device
Inside is an X-ray machine, an electrocardiograph (ECG) machine and other medical equipment.

On top of the truck is a dish which uses Russian satellites to send and receive medical data, linking it with health experts hundreds of miles away.

Vtana says the truck's chassis can cope with even the worse road, while the equipment on board is housed in shock-proof casings.

A vehicle of this size and sophistication comes with a hefty price tag of $600,000. But the makers say this is cheap compared to the cost of building a new hospital.

"Everybody who comes to see the mobile unit says that this is not expensive," said Andrey Mekhanik of the Russian Satellite Communications Company.

"They are surprised that the cost is so low."

The company says that Kenya is interested in shelling out for one of the vehicles. It hopes to sell some 20 trucks over the next 12 months.


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