A Telemedicine project that was helping to treat babies with congenital heart defects in remote areas of Brazil has now been adapted to treat babies born with microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that is believed to be caused by the Zika virus.

Similar to South Africa, Brazil has a large remote population that doesn’t have appropriate access to healthcare. This doubled with poor infrastructure makes it exceptionally difficult for mothers to travel with their babies to see medical specialists.

Paediatric Cardiologist, Dr Sandra Mattos, set up the Heart Network telemedicine service in Brazil’s northern Paraiba state a few years ago after being overseas and seeing first-hand the positive effects telemedicine can have on improving access to healthcare.

“Training a specialist takes a very long time and a lot of effort. Using telemedicine, you can concentrate the expertise in some areas and then spread it to much bigger areas, so that more people will benefit from it,” said Dr Mattos.

22 regional hospitals and more than 100 doctors are involved in the Heart Network. ‘Echo taxis’ have also been incorporated to deliver specialised equipment to facilities in remote rural communities. The

Local staff is trained to operate the equipment while specialist doctors are on hand to look over the data through telemedicine. From this they can determine which babies need to be seen in person and which ones don’t.

“It’s a way of running clinics and not having to overload the big centres, which are very few and far apart from each other. We try to bring to the large centres the patients that really need care,” said Dr Mattos.

Since the telemedicine initiative began the hearts of 127,000 infants in the state have been examined.

With the onset of the Zika crisis, Dr Mattos’ telemedicine model has been easily adapted to treat and properly diagnose the infants with suspected brain damage.

The echo taxis are now being sent out with equipment to look at babies’ brains instead of their hearts, and there are now neurosurgeons instead of heart surgeons treating the small patients via telemedicine.

Other than treating the babies, the large database of information that is being collected on babies born in the state is helping researchers learn more about Zika-related birth defects in Paraiba. The data is also allowing the state to more effectively deal with the current Zika crisis.

“I think, perhaps, that is what is so unique about our situation here in Paraiba and in Brazil. We don’t have very large databases in Brazil as a whole, it’s not very common, especially rural communities — we don’t get data from them,” concluded Dr Mattos.

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