Satellites can help scientists follow parasites and viruses, and in some cases predict months ahead of time an outbreak of dengue fever or malaria, researchers said Sunday.
‘Some diseases are highly sensitive to their environment, especially parasitic diseases,’ said Archie Clements, director of the school of population health at the Australian National University in Canberra. ‘With remote sensing you can identify places where disease flourishes,’ Clements told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California.
‘This information is useful for decision makers to help them ensure scarce resources are targeted to where they are most needed,’ he said, noting that tropical diseases affect millions of people each year particularly in less developed nations. Scientists use data transmitted by satellite on temperature, precipitation, soil moisture, vegetation type and land use, then analyze that information in a computer model.
‘The result is maps that are accessible to countries with limited capacity for managing disease data, tailored to their local needs,’ Clements said. According to Kenneth Linthicum, director of the US Department of Agriculture Center for medical agriculture and veterinary entomology in Florida, this approach helps government scientists ‘use environmental data, particularly global climate data, on a global scale to predict certain diseases before they occur.’
Satellite data can be particularly helpful in predicting the rise of mosquito-borne diseases, he told the conference. His team has worked on Rift Valley fever, a viral disease transmitted by mosquitos that is found in Africa and on the Arabian peninsula. The disease primarily affects livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats, killing the animals and wreaking economic havoc through food shortages and increasing prices on the people who rely on those animals for food and income.
Each time there were heavy rains that led to homes getting flooded, conditions were right for the disease-bearing mosquitoes eggs to hatch, scientists learned.