Sunday, July 12, 2009

Whatever next?

David Rogers, an expert in ecology and disease at Oxford University, observes his research has linked levels of photosynthesis, detected from satellites, to the size of a vein in the wings of west African tsetse flies.

This vein-measurement indicates the health and size of fly populations—and suggests the likelihood of epidemics of sleeping sickness, a tsetse-borne parasitic disease that kills tens of thousands of Africans a year.

That means satellite data can be used to predict epidemics without having to collect any flies on the ground.

Jacques-André Ndione, a researcher at the Centre de Suivi Ecologique, a government public-health agency in Dakar, Senegal, is also impressed by the power of satellite monitoring.

He cites one study which showed that in west Africa malaria tends to spread faster in suburban neighbourhoods than in cities and slums.

The reason, revealed by satellite, is that the suburbs have more backyard ponds and puddles.

Indeed, satellites can not only count such small bodies of water, they can measure their longevity, salinity and mud content—and thus how mosquito-friendly they are.

And it is not only Africa that is benefiting.

Satellite research indicates a “significant risk” that dengue fever, malaria and Rift Valley fever will enter Europe, according to Renaud Lancelot, the head of the EDEN project, a group of laboratories and public-health agencies in 24 European and African countries.

Indeed, chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus endemic to tropical Africa and Asia, has already arrived in Albania and Italy.

A harbinger of things to come, perhaps?

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