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[NAIROBI] African health ministers have called for the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help with attempts to tackle non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and sickle-cell disease.

The recommendation that ICTs be harnessed to increase health awareness and empower individuals and communities was part of the Brazzaville Declaration on NCDs, which the ministers have signed.

The declaration includes other recommendations, calling for the strengthening health systems, and support for partnerships and networks that bring together national, regional and global players including academic and research institutions, public and private sectors, and civil society to tackle the rising problem.

The ministers also urged the WHO, partners and civil society organisations to take the initiative and give technical support to member states so that they can implement the recommendations better, as well as monitor and evaluate what they have done.

NCDs such as cancer, diabetes and heart diseases, have spread to the developing world and cause the majority of the deaths worldwide, according to the first global report on the status of NCDs released by the WHO last week (27 April). Some 36 million, or 80 per cent, of deaths caused by NCDs in 2008 occurred in the low- and middle-income countries.

The declaration, named after the Congolese capital city where it was adopted last month (6 April), will be presented at the UN General Assembly High-Level Meeting on NCDs in September.

"It is high time African governments adopted new science and new technologies to help reduce NCDs on the continent," said Robert Mathenge, a cardiologist at the Nairobi Hospital in Kenya.

"I am particularly excited about the prospects of telemedicine, where a few specialists can sit in Nairobi and interact with health workers in rural villages in real time and guide them through examining, diagnosing and treating patients," he told SciDev.Net.

Such technologies, he said, will lead to the earlier diagnosis of diseases and the use of specialist treatments and preventive strategies in even the remotest parts of the country.

"African governments need to invest more in the development of ICT infrastructure. In the long run, they will reap big [benefits] because, if left unchecked, NCDs have to be treated with complicated, expensive technologies and medicines," he said.

Davy Omolo, an ICT expert at telecommunications company Telecraft in Nairobi, said: "We have one of the fastest-growing ICT sectors on the continent and it is time we capitalised on this".

But Tim Unwin, UNESCO chair in ICT for Development (ICT4D), was cautious on telemedicine. "It is intuitively very appealing, but it is striking that it has not yet been particularly successfully introduced across Africa," he said. "We need to know much more about why telemedicine initiatives have so frequently failed."

Unwin said that although some aspects of ICTs could be productively applied to tackling NCDs, for example, in providing information to health workers on how to diagnose the diseases, "to be successful, ICTs in health need to be integrated into comprehensive nation-wide policies and practices".

He added that health awareness programmes that use traditional media, such as radio and television, can be "hugely important in raising awareness".

The WHO report says that prevalence of NCDs in Africa "is rising rapidly and is projected to cause almost three-quarters as many deaths as communicable, maternal, perinatal, and nutritional diseases by 2020, and to almost equal them as the most common causes of death by 2030".

The common risk factors involved in driving the rise in NCDs, according to the report, are tobacco use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet and the harmful use of alcohol, which lead to raised blood pressure, excessive weight, and raised sugar and cholesterol levels in the blood.