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Satellites help scientists track deadly parasites

Catharine Paddock PhD

In a new project, scientists are developing a way to use satellite data to fight parasitic diseases like malaria, worms and hydatids.By combining satellite and health data, scientists are developing a system that tracks parasitic diseases like malaria. The project is an example of an expanding field in disease research, where new tools like spatial statistics are helping developers bring together earth observation and disease data to analyze and predict patterns of disease.

There are many parasites – organisms that live in a host and get their food from or at their expense – that cause diseases in humans. Some parasitic diseases are easy to treat, while others like malaria, are not.

Most parasitic diseases are found in the tropics and subtropics; the greatest burden falls on the least developed countries and affects hundreds of millions of people every year.

Archie Clements, leader of the new project and a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, told delegates at a recent AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, CA, how systems such as the one they are working on should help developing countries target scarce resources to greatest effect.

Combining satellite data with health data to predict parasitic disease

“Some diseases are highly sensitive to their environment, especially parasitic diseases. With remote sensing you can identify places where disease flourishes,” explains Prof. Clements, who is also director of the University’s Research School of Population Health.

Fast facts about malaria

  • Half the world’s population is at risk of malaria
  • People living in the poorest countries are the most vulnerable
  • Every minute, a child dies from malaria.
  • Find out more about malaria

He and his colleagues are developing a way to combine satellite data with health data in a computerized geographical information system (GIS).

The idea is that using the GIS, decision makers can quickly locate the high-risk areas, and see whether there is enough resource there.

The satellite data includes information about climate and land conditions such as temperature, rainfall, vegetation and land usage.

The team is also drawing on the knowledge of entomologists, epidemiologists, software developers, social scientists and health policy specialists, to ensure the GIS data is as rich and useful as possible.

Prof. Clements explains:

“The result is maps that are accessible to countries with limited capacity for managing disease data, tailored to their local needs.”

System has been tested to track malaria in some small countries

Trials of the new system have already taken place in Bhutan, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where it was used to track malaria.

The team is now seeking sponsorship to help them apply the system to larger countries.

They are also developing the GIS to predict worms and hydatids – a type of tapeworm that can be transmitted by dogs that come into contact with sheep – in China, the Philippines and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Prof. Clements says:

“By taking this research the next step, we have the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the real world, and save a lot of lives.”

In 2013, Medical News Today also learned how scientists developed a way to use satellites to predict outbreaks of cholera months in advance, with greater accuracy. In that research, a team at Tufts University School of Engineering, Medford, MA used satellite data to measure chlorophyll and algae, organic substances, and flora that support growth of the cholera bacteria.

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