NASA pioneers  Malaria-Predicting Technology for Burma

NASA pioneers Malaria-Predicting Technology for Burma

NASA is developing a new technique to forecast malaria outbreaks in Burma from space, as the emergence of new drug-resistant strains in Southeast Asia threatens efforts to wipe out the deadly disease globally.

The goal of worldwide malaria eradication within a generation, by 2050, is “bold but attainable,” according to a report released in September 2019 in The Lancet medical journal.

Malaria cases and deaths plummeted by more than 90% in Burma between 2010 and 2017, World Health Organization (WHO) figures show, a success largely credited to better rural health services and wider use of treated bed nets.

The country, however, still has a higher prevalence of malaria than its neighbors in the Mekong region.

Several drug-resistant strains are taking hold across Southeast Asia, and it is feared these could migrate to Africa where more than 90% of cases occur globally. 

To counter this threat, NASA is deploying cutting-edge spatial technology to tackle malaria outbreaks before they happen, scientist Dr. Tatiana Loboda said. She is applying her expertise in geospatial and risk modeling, coupled with her background in predicting wildfire outbreaks in the U.S., to identify potential hot spots so medicines and health workers can be mobilized in advance.

“A lot of people use a little spatial modeling … but not to the same depth and capabilities as we’re doing here,” said Loboda, a University of Maryland professor.

The satellites provide meteorological data, including land surface temperatures, atmospheric water content and information about land cover, including forest, shrubland, settlements or water. These are then combined with socio-economic data gathered by teams of researchers carrying out in-depth surveys with sample populations in the field.

The project is only in its third year, but Loboda’s team has already seen a high correlation between the rate of deforestation and the disease.

One unproven theory is that these areas, often dotted with logging sites, mines and plantations, are host to a disproportionate number of migrant or seasonal workers, bringing with them new strains of the parasite.

The University of Maryland team is working closely with local government and military scientists, collecting data from civilians and troops, respectively.  Agence France-Presse