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Malaria Research Facility Dedicated in Mali

A new malaria laboratory facility was recently dedicated at the University of Mali in Bamako, Mali, West Africa, to promote malaria research, especially the development of vaccines. The facility provides tools, resources and technology to scientists who can then carry out malaria research in their native countries where the disease is endemic.

Malian researchers study blood smears in one of the new labs.

NIAID has long supported and collaborated with Malian scientists. The labs are part of the Malaria Research and Training Center, which opened in 1989. The MRTC works closely with the Malian Ministry of Health as well as the National Malaria Control Program. The new facility will house new and ongoing research and training programs supported by NIAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the NIH Office of Research on Minority Health, the Fogarty International Center, the World Health Organization and NASA. The new building, which has recently been set up for connection to the Internet (see sidebar below), contains two large labs, a conference room and library, and several classrooms.

Each year, an estimated 300 million people are infected with the malaria parasite, and more than 1 million people, mostly children, die from the disease.

The MRTC labs conduct a range of research activities, including studies on the basic epidemio-logy of disease. Current MRTC program objectives include the detection of parasite resistance to anti-malarial drugs; the role of hemoglobin C in malaria pathogenesis; and clinical and field testing of malaria vaccine candidates.

Although there is no vaccine available for the prevention of malaria, two promising vaccine approaches are being investigated at the MRTC.

The new labs will be an important collaborating facility for NIAID's malaria vaccine development unit located in Maryland, as well as for other NIAID-supported investigators.

Map of West Africa, location of Mali

NIAID Brings Technology to Mali

By Diana Carroll

Imagine what it would be like to conduct research with no Internet connection, no email communication, and no reliable phone system to communicate with your colleagues. Until recently, this is how life was for scientists at the Malaria Research and Training Center (MRTC) at the University of Mali in West Africa, which for 10 years has been a primary center of collaborative malaria research in Africa for NIAID's Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases. But recently, Chris Whalen, a computer specialist with NIAID's office of technology and information systems, and his colleague Jonathan Folkers began work to change all that.

The first step was wiring the MRTC for connection to the local Internet service provider in Bamako, Mali. But phone lines are expensive to use, unreliable and experience frequent outages.

Microwave communication antenna on top of entomology lab building in Mali.

To solve this problem, they recently switched the Internet access from phone lines to microwave radio communication. A microwave transmitter uses radio waves to communicate directly to the ISP in downtown Bamako, which then connects to the Internet via a satellite dish shared by the entire country.

Whalen and Folkers configured the computers so that when a person connects to the Internet, he or she is actually connecting via the local area network to a microwave transmitter on top of the building. Microwave radio communication is less expensive in developing countries and more reliable than phone-line connections.

Although the microwave connection has proved to be a great improvement, it is still not an ideal solution; a few weeks ago, the satellite connection the country uses to tap the Internet went down. And two days later, the state telephone company, which maintains the system, went on strike, essentially leaving the entire country off-line with no Internet service. International phone lines were down for several days as well.

Chris Whalen (l) joins LAN technicians Sidy Soumare, Jr.(c), and Ousmane Toure, Sr., in Mali.

"In the past 6 to 8 months, there has been an explosive growth in the number of people using the Internet in Mali, and you still have the same size 'pipe' (satellite link) for the entire country. It's gotten more and more congested to the point where it's almost unusable," said Whelan. MRTC therefore needs its own satellite connection.

Such a connection will permit collaborative research projects. A dish will be placed on top of the Twinbrook I Bldg. in Rockville, where NIAID's malaria vaccine development unit is located. This will enable communication between researchers at NIH, the main MRTC lab facility in Mali, and a remote field laboratory and clinic in Bandiagarra, which will also be equipped with a dish. The satellite connections are due up by April 2001.

In addition to microwave networks and satellite technology, Whalen is also working to install a packet radio system to connect field sites that have unreliable or no power sources. Packet radios are being installed in trucks, which will allow voice, fax, email communication and database updates from any location within 1,000 kilometers, or 620 miles, of Bamako.

It's crucial to have packet radios available for researchers to transmit data once the malaria season begins in Mali in the spring. Researchers traveling to villages must keep patient records in the village clinics. Packet radios will enable them to send and receive email from field sites and make updates to the vaccine research databases in real time.

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