Developing countries get free medical help online

Countries with low GNPs will qualify for free medical information over the Net, but US journals haven't signed up so far

Six of the world's leading medical journal publishers pledged on Monday to use the Internet to give third world medical institutes access to their publications free of charge or at a drastically reduced rate.

The deal, brokered by the World Health Organisation (WHO), will enable almost 100 of the world's poorest countries to gain access to vital scientific information that they otherwise could not afford. The service -- which does not yet include any American journals -- is scheduled to launch in January 2002, and will last for at least three years.

Developing countries will be assessed according to their ability to pay for the information. In the 65 countries where the GNP (Gross National Product) is less than $1,000 per capita per year, the service will be completely free, and for the 30 countries where the GNP is between $1,000 and $3,000 per capita the journal subscriptions will be "deeply discounted".

"This is a message from the leaders of the publishing industry, that they are working positively with the health sector to correlate what the service costs, and what countries can pay for it," said Barbara Aronson, development librarian for the WHO in Geneva.

Until now, biomedical journal subscriptions have been priced uniformly for medical schools, research centres and similar institutions irrespective of global location, with annual subscriptions typically costing more than $3,000. The Lancet -- one of the medical journals involved in the project -- has now only two institutions in southern Africa and South Africa paying for the service.

"Providing access to journals, either for free or at a much reduced rate, completely transforms their environment. It's like a desert turning into a garden," said Dr Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal, which has also signed up to the agreement.

The initiative is part of the United Nation's Health InterNetwork project, focused on providing public health workers, researchers and policy makers with access to up-to-date health information via an Internet portal.

"We would never have gone to publishers if we weren't also working on the other side of improving Internet access and connectivity in developing countries," said Aronson.

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