Satellites and GIS help developing countries target deadly parasites

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Satellite and GIS data is helping developing countries better manage limited resources in the fight against parasitic diseases (Photo: Lasse S. Vestergaard/WHO)

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Each year, hundreds of millions of people in developing countries are affected by parasitic diseases. One of the most common is malaria, which kills more than a million people annually, mostly children under five years of age. Scientists are using satellite data combined with local health information uploaded into geographical information systems (GIS) to help developing countries better manage limited resources and target interventions in the fight against malaria and other deadly parasitic diseases.

A research project led by the Australian National University (ANU) and involving entomologists, epidemiologists, software developers, social scientists and health policy specialists is working to help predict patterns of parasitic diseases, such as malaria, worms and hydatids, in developing countries like Bhutan, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

The team uses satellite data, such as temperature, rainfall, vegetation and land usage, and combines it with local health data, uploaded in a GIS, which generates maps identifying problem areas that can help predict disease patterns.

"Some diseases are highly sensitive to their environment, especially parasitic diseases," says Professor Archie Clements, Director of the Research School of Population Health at ANU, and the project leader. "With remote sensing you can identify places where disease flourishes."

Although limited resources on the ground make it difficult for local decision makers to respond quickly, the information provided by the project has proven useful in helping them ensure the resources they do have are targeted to where they are most needed.

"The use of geo-spatial technologies can provide health personnel with practical tools to not only track infections at fine scale, but also to target resources and interventions to priority areas, and to ensure operations that are implemented in these areas actually achieve optimal coverage to ensure maximum impact," says Dr Gerard Kelly, a research fellow with ANU. "As worldwide access to digital and mobile technologies improves, these geo-spatial surveillance technologies are particularly beneficial to support disease management in developing countries where health systems are often over-burdened and resources are generally very limited."

The outcome of this combined approach includes maps that more accurately and effectively facilitate delivery and tracking of preventive measures, such as the distribution of bed nets and the spraying of local homes with insecticide.

It is hoped the project will create opportunities to build skills in local communities. For example, increasing the number of GIS technicians, for long-term sustainability, as well as improving networks between countries to aid the global fight against parasitic diseases.

In its next phase, the project will be scaled up to include additional provinces in the trial countries, as well as integrating data on other parasites, such as Dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis in Bhutan. The team is also seeking support to scale up to larger countries, as well as developing spatial predictions for other diseases, such as worms and hydatids for China, the Philippines and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

"We have the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the real world, and save a lot of lives," says Professor Clements.

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