Satellites track snail disease risk

Satellites track snail disease risk

The watersnail hosts a key stage in the parasitic worm's life cycle

“One of the big challenges that all public health agencies have – and that's true you know in the UK, in the US or in Kenya – is limited resources.

“If we can help them target the resources in space and time, that is a huge service we can do.”

Ken Linthicum from the US Department of Agriculture has been using space data to forecast the future risk of malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and Rift Valley virus.

He cautions that satellites, as wonderful as they are, still have to be supported by work on the ground.

“The key is understanding the ecology and transmission dynamics of the disease beforehand. It's not really appropriate to look at data and then say, 'ok, how can I use that data?'.

“You have to know what’s going on with the disease. In the case of Rift Valley fever, we discovered that it was heavy rainfall that floods habitats, producing the hatch of mosquito eggs that produce the virus. In the case of chikungunya or dengue in Africa, for example, it’s drought conditions that enhance mosquito-breeding habitats near people and then the high temperatures that boost transmission in the mosquito.”

European system

But used with care, the satellite information can prove very powerful, said Prof Kitron.

“Another good example is lyme disease. Soil moisture is very important for survival of the ticks that transmit it. So, by mapping soil moisture by satellite you can create a good risk map.

“Another obvious one is vegetation because different types of vegetation are associated with different insect vectors of disease, or with birds and rodents that might be important. We can now actually map not just where there is vegetation, but the type of vegetation.”

The volume of data used in these applications will jump massively over the next few years as the European Union rolls out its Sentinel satellites.

This fleet of spacecraft represents the largest commitment in history to the observation of Earth from orbit, and all the information will be open and free to use.

Archie Clements from the Australian National University commented: “I do think there is going to be some key advantages of the availability of this data, partly because the spatial resolution is going to be high and also because the temporal resolution is going to be high – which means we’re going to be able to track the dynamics of diseases much more effectively over time and look at patterns of disease emergence and change.”

The European Union is building a new constellation of satellites called the Sentinels

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk an follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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