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Doctors and researchers from the world’s poorest countries can now gain free access through the Internet to more than 1,000 biomedical journals, following the launch on 31 January of the World Health Organisation’s ‘Access to Research’ Initiative.

The initiative — launched in conjunction with the world’s six biggest medical journals publishers — allows universities, medical schools, research centres and other public institutions in about 70 developing countries to access electronic versions of biomedical journals that they otherwise could not afford.

“Today sees the beginning of a new way to bridge the digital divide in health, and an important move by the publishers in facilitating the flow of health information, using the Internet,” says Michael Scholtz, who is leading the project.

Free access to the journals is now available to institutions in countries with a Gross National Product (GNP) per capita below US$1,000, based on 1998 World Bank figures. Later, in a second stage of the initiative, public institutions in nations with a GNP per capita between US$1,000 and US$3,000 will be eligible for access at greatly reduced prices.

The initiative, hailed by WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland as “perhaps the biggest step ever taken towards reducing the health information gap between rich and poor countries”, comes in response to increasing concern that doctors and scientists in poorer nations are unable to afford access to medical literature, even though the marginal costs of providing this information to them electronically is relatively low.

The medical journal publishers Blackwell, Elsevier Science, the Harcourt Worldwide STM Group, Wolters Kluwer International Health & Science, Springer Verlag and John Wiley have agreed to provide free or reduced access to their journals for three years as part of the programme.

The initiative is part of the Health InterNetwork project launched in 2000 by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Computer training as well as improved Internet connectivity will also be provided in the project.

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