|About the Albany-Tula Alliance|
|The Albany-Tula Alliance began in 1991 when communism collapsed and Russia was faced with the transition to free enterprise and a democratic form of government. At that time, a humanitarian effort in Albany resulted in collection of more than eight tons of clothing, food and medical supplies. Transported to Russia by the U.S. Air Force, the materials were welcome relief for many who were suddenly without employment. Since then, the alliance has established strong educational, cultural, medical and business programs between the two cities. Several delegations of professional and business people from Tula have visited Albany for meetings with counterparts and 10 businessmen and scientists spent several months here. Further exacerbating the problem is a silent threat that is undermining the health of a large portion of the population -- the radiation that rained down on the Tula region and much of the former Soviet Union in 1986 as a result of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
Called one of the worst technological disasters of all time, Chernobyl has scarred the lives of the people of Russia in many ways that have not yet been assessed. Even after a decade, the radioactive isotope Cesium 137 is found in the soil and air. In some regions, the incidence of thyroid cancer is many times greater than would be expected, children still are being born with severe thyroid deficiencies, and there is great fear that genetic damage will be passed on to future generations. Because of the lack of sophisticated diagnostic tools and the primitive health information systems, the full extent of the damage still is not known. To find a remedy for this situation is the goal of a new project of the Albany-Tula Alliance. As a first step, last year the head of Tula State University, Edward M. Sokolov, met here with members of the Alliance and officials at the Albany Medical College to discuss ways that people here could help. ''We have competent doctors, researchers, and teachers,'' Sokolov noted, ''but they lack access to new medical technologies, to procedures for evaluating genetic damage, and to the wealth of health care and medical information that is playing a crucial role in the advancement of American medical practice.
I have asked our American colleagues to help us close that gap.'' In response to that request, the Alliance asked Dr. James Figge to go to Tula while he was in Russia at a conference on genetics. Figge is an endocrinologist at Albany Medical College who has evaluated thyroid cancer patients in Russia and is studying the genetic basis of these cancers. ''I found that there is a lack of information about the extent of genetic damage in the present population,'' Figge reported. ''Nor do we know how much of that damage will cause health problems in the future. Much more research is needed -- the kind of research that is being done at the Medical College. ''I also found,'' Figge added, ''that medical education in Tula is limited and lacks access to advanced technologies. So, even if modern tools and procedures could be made available, there would still be a severe training problem.'' Agreeing with this judgment, Sokolov sent Anatoli Kouznetsov and Nicolai Kachurin, specialists in ecology and environmental engineering, to Albany to learn about the genetic research being done here and to explore means of gaining help in improving medical education in Tula.
They have been working since September with Figge, under the auspices of the Alliance and with support provided by the Special American Business Internship Training program, mastering procedures for analyzing genetic material which they expect to be of great value in assessing the extent of genetic damage in Russia. In addition to spending many hours in the laboratory, they have visited academic and public health facilities throughout the Capital Region to explore possibilities for a working partnership between Tula and Albany. ''It quickly became evident to us,'' Kouznetsov said, ''that the Internet offers an exciting and powerful way to link our two communities.'' Kachurin added, ''We cannot afford to send large numbers of our faculty and students here, but using the Internet we can achieve the benefits of your medical education at a fraction of the cost of personnel exchanges and, through the same system, accelerate the adoption of modern medical information technologies.'' Their mentor and host has been Dr. Robert Chodos, professor of medicine and radiology at the Medical Center and member of the Alliance. Chodos has made several trips to Tula to explore solutions to medical and health problems, including development of a health maintenance organization. Ruslan Vorontsov and Yevgeny Belyayev, Tula University graduate teaching fellows also here under Alliance auspices, have participated in the discussions and assisted as interpreters. ''The Capital Region has advanced distance-learning capabilities and, among its many health care centers, a rich array of resources that we are eager to share with the Russians,'' Chodos said. ''The challenge now is to create mechanisms to facilitate that sharing.'' To meet that challenge, Kouznetsov said, ''We are developing a proposal for a joint Center for Medical and Information Technologies to be co-located in Albany and Tula. We hope to have a concrete plan developed before we leave Albany next month.'' Included in the proposal, Kachurin said, ''will be information about the many options for distance education which we have learned about in our visits to RPI, Hudson Valley Community College, the University at Albany, Regents College, and, of course, Albany Medical College.'' Two key prerequisites for collaboration are access to the Internet and availability of sufficient computers so that Tula faculty, students and health care workers can connect with it. At present, Tula -- and most universities outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg -- lack the infrastructure for direct access to the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Soros Fund, created by George Soros, a billionaire Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist, has committed $100 million to bring the Internet to such institutions. Tula University is to be part of that effort. Kouznetsov and Kachurin are working on a proposal to receive the funds. The alternatives for Internet access are laying fiber optic or coaxial cable from Moscow to Tula, a distance of some 120 miles, or using satellites to bypass the need for land links. Funds from the Soros grant would be used in part to assess the financial and technical factors needed to make a decision, and in part to draw up detailed technical specifications and a budget for funding by the government of Russia. Even as arrangements are being worked on to bring the Internet to Tula, there is a critical need for computers, both to conduct research and to take advantage of the wealth of scientific and instructional materials that are available on CD-ROM. The Alliance is seeking to find a short-term solution to this problem by asking local businesses, governments and individuals to contribute usable computers. They must be capable of graphical access to the Net, and be in working condition, or require minimal work to make them usable. Printers and modems (minimum 14.4) also are being sought. ''While we need full-scale computers,'' Kouznetsov said, ''we are intrigued by the possibility that new low-cost devices designed for access to the internet, so-called 'network computers,' will make it possible for us to provide Internet access to many more people than if we had to wait until we could afford regular computers.'' Anyone with computers to offer or wanting more information about the Alliance may contact Laura Chodos at (518) 371-9243 or send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .Said Charlotte Buchanan, chair of the Alliance: ''Our primary consideration in all of these efforts is that we in the Capital Region can help improve the quality of education and health care in Tula while benefiting from the warm interpersonal relationships we have developed through working together. Furthermore, anything we learn about how to alleviate the after effects of a disaster like Chernobyl will be of inestimable value should anything like that occur anywhere in the world.''