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Watching for Disease

Disease outbreaks don't just arise out of nowhere. Environmental conditions have to be just right for disease-causing viruses and bacteria to flourish. This suggests a possible strategy for dealing with pathogen outbreaks: watch for signs that the environmental conditions conducive to disease are emerging, then move to protect the threatened populations.

That's just what NASA intends to do, according to Patrick L. Barry, writing for the Science@NASA newsletter, reprinted at RedNova:

Ronald Welch of NASA's Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the scientists working to develop such an early warning system. "I have been to malarious areas in both Guatemala and India," he says. "Usually I am struck by the poverty in these areas, at a level rarely seen in the United States. The people are warm and friendly, and they are appreciative, knowing that we are there to help. It feels very good to know that you are contributing to the relief of sickness and preventing death, especially the children."

The approach employed by Welch and others combines data from high-tech environmental satellites with old-fashioned, "khaki shorts and dusty boots" fieldwork. Scientists actually seek out and visit places with disease outbreaks.

Then they scrutinize satellite images to learn how disease-friendly conditions look from space. The satellites can then watch for those conditions over an entire region, country, or even continent as they silently slide across the sky once a day, every day.

In India, for example, where Welch is doing research, health officials are talking about setting up a satellite-based malaria early warning system for the whole country. In coordination with mathematician Jia Li of the University of Alabama at Huntsville and India's Malaria Research Center, Welch is hoping to do a pilot study in Mewat, a predominantly rural area of India south of New Delhi. The area is home to more than 700,000 people living in 491 villages and 5 towns, yet is only about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island.


"We expect to be able to give warnings of high disease risk for a given village or area up to a month in advance," Welch says. "These 'red flags' will let health officials focus their vaccination programs, mosquito spraying, and other disease-fighting efforts in the areas that need them most, perhaps preventing an outbreak before it happens."

(Via Smart Mobs)

Comments (1)

Here at Bear Creek Corporation we have weather monitoring stations in our orchards and correlate the data to possible disease outbreaks. This is a significant branch of 'agricultural engineering.' We no longer blanket spray all of our orchards when a certain pest is found in one orchard. We have better data and can target only those areas that are at risk.


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