Satellite data a new tool in fight against malaria
Satellite data mapping could be a new breakthrough in fight against malaria.
Public health authorities may have a new tool in the fight against common infectious and parasitic diseases with the use of remote sensing and geographical information systems to track and target deadly parasites.
A research team at the Australian National University has trialled the system with malaria in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Bhutan with positive responses from local health authorities.
The teams project leader Professor Archie Clements told Koroi Hawkins the technology could help save millions of lives in developing countries if it is integrated into public health monitoring systems.
ARCHIE CLEMENTS: The Technology involves monitoring the earth, monitoring the variables that describe the earth so things like temperature, vegetation cover, land use cover. And those attributes of the earth or the environment can be associated with disease patterns. So for example some diseases favour high rainfall, high humidity and a particular range of temperatures. And if you can monitor the earth and identify areas that are suitable for disease occurrence. Then that becomes a useful tool for understanding where disease is likely to occur and targeting public health resources to combat disease.
KOROI HAWKINS: And you've trialled this for some diseases in the Pacific, I understand, which countries were you looking at?
AC: We've mapped malaria in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. You maybe aware that the melanesian countries together with a whole lot of other countries, over thirty countries around the world, are embarking on the elimination of malaria and one of the challenges faced by countries like Vanuatu and Solomon Islands is that there surveillance systems are not as well functioning as they could be. And so we are interested in developing tools that can augment surveillance. And so remote sensing is one of those tools because it can tell you about where disease is likely to occur even if you don't have a very well functioning surveillance system that can provide you with that information.
KH: You are basically going to map out where you see as high risk sort of areas and that will allow governments with limited resources to target those specific areas is that right?
AC: That's right, I think remote sensing has got a couple of different applications. One is identifying areas where malaria is likely to occur in the current time. But also once we've eliminated malaria one of the big fears is that malaria will come back and that actually happened in the past. In the 1950s the world embarked on a malaria elimination program, after a period of time donors lost interest and the malaria elimination efforts came to an end. There was a lot of progress made but then there were very rapid reversals in those successes, malaria came back with a vengeance. What I believe is that if we can identify areas that are particularly susceptive to malaria resurgence, so these areas with habitats that are highly suitable for malaria vectors. We can then target our surveillance resources more efficiently to identify reintroduction of malaria and deal with the problem quickly so we don't end up back where we started.
KH: And is it just malaria that this helps with or are there other similar parasites or diseases?
AC: No there are many diseases that are driven by environmental conditions predominantly the vector borne diseases, so these are diseases that are transmitted by mosquitoes and other insects. And also parasitic diseases that have a stage of their life cycle outside of the human host. So both of those types of disease either the mosquito or the parasite is particularly vulnerable to environmental conditions. And so the environment or variables that describe the environment can be very good predictors of the probability of that disease being present or the probability of that disease coming back. So some examples would be schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminth infections, Dengue, Ross river virus, murray valley encephalitis, there's a whole host of diseases where this technology could be useful.
KH: Now you say you are looking for bigger countries or funding to be able to trial it in bigger countries. Why is that important?
AC: So, so far we've developed systems that integrate disease data and spacial information to provide operational tools to support malaria elimination in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and we are also piloting a system in Bhutan and with collaborators in other countries where we are piloting the system. But these approaches haven't yet been used at a large scale in large countries embarking on for example the elimination of malaria. And they are also not routinely integrated within disease control programs, disease surveillance systems, disease health information systems. So I think that we are actually missing out on the potential of these systems for improving disease control and prevention. If we can demonstrate the utility of these systems at scale, so in large countries, we can demonstrate the impact of these systems on tackling disease then I think that they will become much more widely adapted, then hopefully we will see the true benefit.
KH: What is the future for this technology and how important do you see it becoming for the world and public health?
AC: I think the technology is moving along quickly and the application of the technology and the use the practical use of the technology is lagging behind. So one of the things that I would like to focus on is ensuring more widespread use of technology. But in terms of the advance of the technology one of the great advances is that we are getting more and more remote sensing information with the european space agency sentinel satellites we are going to be getting much higher resolution information so we are going to be getting higher resolution information on a regular basis and that will enable us to study patterns of disease emergence, could be potentially useful for outbreak management. And all that information needs of course to be quality assured and needs to be presented to researchers and public health agencies in a way that is useful to them. But I mean, I see in the long term that remote sensing and geographical information systems could be integrated within national surveillance systems national control programs that people all the way from the policy level down to delivering interventions in the field can have access to maps that tell them about the distribution of disease, that tell them about where their surveillance system has been operating and their control program has been operating. Can help them identify areas where they need to be doing better, where they need to be allocating there resources in a more timely fashion. And so I think it could be a useful integrated tool within the broader public health effort to control disease.
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