NASA converts satellites into a platform to monitor disease outbreaks
The study of epidemics is a complex business. In order to gain an understanding of how and where the disease may spread, scientists must examine complex environmental factors such as weather, terrain and vegetation. You might call it rocket science; National Aeronautical and Space Association (NASA) scientists understand this complexity, that's why they're looking to space for some help.
A net of 14 satellites currently orbiting the Earth has been established which has allowed scientists to monitor the Earth's environment to help predict and preempt disease outbreaks across the globe.
The program, which is part of NASA's Applied Sciences program, gathers information daily. It disseminates this information to various government and scientific organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Defense. These organizations use the data to track disease outbreaks and decide on public health policy decisions.
The satellite network can help track some of the mankind's deadliest foes, such as Ebola, West Nile Virus and Rift Valley Fever. The network takes advantage of the fact that these diseases' success is dependent on changes in the weather, vegetation in a specific area, and the terrain.
The satellites provide tracking of disease outbreaks and also allow plague vectors -- such as insects or rodents -- to be monitored.
NASA sees the program as a possible tool in tracking disease as our environment changes due to global warming and other factors. “NASA satellite remote sensing technology has been an important tool in the last few years to not only provide scientists with the data needed to respond to epidemic threats quickly, but to also help predict the future of infectious diseases in areas where diseases were never a main concern,” explains John Haynes, public health program manager for the NASA Earth Science Applied Sciences Program.
“Changing environments due to global warming have the ability to change environmental habitats so drastically that diseases such as malaria may become common in areas that have never been previously at-risk.”
The program aims in specific to help the highly vulnerable Four Corners region, which includes Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. This area is considered very susceptible to plague and Hanta virus outbreaks. These outbreaks could effectively be controlled and stopped, though, with careful monitoring and tracking.
The plague could also be a powerful weapon against bioterrorists who might use it or other infectious agents on population centers.
As Hayes mentioned, another major target of the program is Malaria, a particularly infectious disease which affects 300-500 million people worldwide and has contributed to natural selection driven propagation of the genetic defect sickle cell anemia.
In total, nearly 40 percent of the world is at risk of developing malaria. NASA is teaming up with the Malaria Modeling and Surveillance Project, a project at the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences in Thailand and the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit in Indonesia, to develop a comprehensive attack against malaria worldwide, based on this information. Malaria is transmitted via mosquitoes who feed on the blood of infected hosts. By tracking the outbreak and climate conditions, an optimal pesticide defense can be applied to stop these disease harbingers dead in their tracks.
The best part of all is that the technology is cheap as it utilizes existing satellites. “The use of this technology is not only essential for the future of curbing the spread of infectious diseases,” said Haynes. “NASA satellites are also a cost-effective method for operational agencies since they are already in orbit and in use by scientists to collect data about the Earth’s atmosphere.”