NASA SatellitesIn 1999, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists theorized that in the near future, they would be able to track disease outbreaks from space. They were mainly concerned with Rift Valley Fever. This is a disease prevalent in East Africa that is deadly to livestock and occasionally deadly in humans. NASA scientists already had surmised that outbreaks were directly related to El Niño weather events. Areas with more vegetation on abnormally precipitous years breed more disease-carrying mosquitoes. To see the exact areas that would be most at-risk, NASA satellites would need to be able to track differences in the color and density of vegetation from year to year.

Tracking Rift Valley Fever

In 2006, NASA scientists were able to predict and track an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever in East Africa. Even with intervention efforts, the outbreak led to the deaths of over 500 people and cost the regional economy over $60 million due to export restrictions and livestock deaths. Although the researchers could not adequately predict the outbreak then, the results of that mission gave them confidence that they could predict the next outbreak even better the next time El Niño conditions arose.

Ten years later, the NASA team successfully predicted the location of the next potential outbreak. They subsequently warned the Kenyan government before the disease could strike and gave them ample time to prepare. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Kenyan government and NASA satellites, Kenya saw no outbreak of Rift Valley Fever in 2016. The country protected the lives and livelihoods of rural farmers throughout the country and saved millions of dollars.

The success of the Rift Valley Fever prediction models gave the researchers more confidence in their methods. They believed that NASA satellites could predict and halt all manner of outbreaks. Researchers focus on neglected diseases like cholera. These diseases have connections to environmental conditions that hit developing countries and impoverished people the hardest. Newer satellites add the ability to measure variables like temperature and rainfall. Researchers are able to use it more than just the visual data utilized in the initial Rift Valley Fever predictions, thanks to the improved models.

Tracking Cholera

Cholera infects from 1.4 to 4 million people and kills more than 140,000 each year. There are two distinct forms of cholera: endemic and epidemic. Endemic cholera is present in bodies of water primarily during the dry season. This means communities living along the coasts are typically prepared for an outbreak. Epidemic cholera comes about during weather events like floods and often leaves inland communities unprepared for the disease. Due to its infectiousness and connection to weather events, it is the most promising disease that new scientific models have analyzed.

In 2013, a research team successfully modeled cholera outbreaks in Bangladesh using NASA satellites. The real test of the team’s predictive models would come in 2017, however, when it used the same model in a very different part of the world: Yemen. The model worked nearly perfectly. Researchers predicted exactly where the outbreaks would occur nearly a full month in advance. The fact that the models worked in impoverished and war-torn Yemen is especially notable for those concerned with extreme poverty. It means that the previously expensive and dangerous work of entering countries like Yemen in order to do disease research is no longer necessary. Instead, early warning systems can be implemented. But even if they fail, governments and organizations can send vaccines and medicines to exactly the right locations. Cholera outbreaks and their disproportionate death rates among the global poor will hopefully soon be a thing of the past.

Hope for the Future

By halting outbreaks before they begin, international aid dollars can have more efficient use. Prevention is always less expensive than reaction. Information in and of itself is valuable and the more information poverty-fighting organizations have, the better they can spend their dollars to maximize utility and help the most people. As satellite technology advances along with newer predictive models, preventing disease outbreaks could save developing economies and aid organizations hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Jeff Keare
Photo: Pixabay

Health Technology in India
With India’s population nearing 1.4 billion, its health care system must be equipped to meet the needs of its people. The health care industry has struggled to keep up with the burden of disease and various health issues in the country, but has significantly expanded its reach in recent years, facilitated by almost doubling the investment in health technology in India. Some of the health challenges that India faces include inequalities resulting from access issues and inadequate resources.

The Ayushman Bharat program, launched in 2018 by the government, has aimed to move toward comprehensive health care with the end goal of Universal Health Coverage (UHC). Included in this program is the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY), the largest health insurance program globally. The health coverage provided by PM-JAY targets the poorest 40% of the Indian population. This health insurance plan is cashless and paperless, with all information accessible from IT platforms. These improvements have grown the Indian health care industry, which is expected to be worth $372 billion by 2022. Here are other ways health care in India can be improved by technology.

Telemedicine and Disease Mapping

Investment in health technology in India can help address issues such as access gaps, the shortage of health workers and low doctor-to-patient ratios. Smartphones and online programs, such as messaging services, are being used to facilitate communication between doctors and patients, tackling geographical barriers to access to doctors and allowing easier access to consults, appointments and medical information.

Disease mapping is another aspect of health technology in India that is crucial to gaining an understanding of the largest health issues in various geographical areas and providing a visual representation of health disparities across the country. The Centre for Global Health Research (CGHR), founded in 2002, is co-sponsored by the University of Toronto and Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. CGHR does epidemiological research for the world’s poorest population. In addition to conducting many studies in India, the CGHR has created an interactive health map of the country to aid government and health officials.

Medical Databases

Online databases improve access to health data for both patients and doctors. This allows patients to receive medical information and data from home. Doctors can also monitor their patients if they are traveling or if they are helping patients in a different region. Many companies including Microsoft, Google and Amazon have made cloud services available to health care providers. Public as well as private sector health providers have increasingly been using these features.

In addition to generally improving the flow and accessibility of health information, clouds and databases increase the efficiency of health workers. Through these aspects of health technology in India, hospitals can consolidate data, and patient transfers and referrals become more organized. Using databases can also improve diagnoses and treatments by allowing doctors to easily access previous cases to inform their decisions regarding new patients.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The Indian health care system is increasingly using more artificial intelligence. The aging population and growing rates of non-communicable diseases have resulted in a demand for technology that can help predict diagnoses and future health challenges in patients. AI and machine learning (ML) include algorithms that find patterns in large amounts of data.

These technologies allow doctors to benefit from thousands of patient cases and information that help in identifying trends. Doctors are then able to make more informed diagnoses for new patients and create effective treatment plans. By analyzing patient data, AI programs can help diagnose patients earlier than would otherwise be possible. They can also help identify patients that might be more vulnerable to certain conditions. This also increases the effectiveness of disease prevention programs.

The use of AI in health care also has the potential to improve doctors’ understanding of what risk factors contribute to disease. Heart disease and cardiac issues have become a leading cause of death in India and doctors hope to use AI to analyze data and gain understanding about the factors contributing to the trend.

Furthermore, AI has the potential to increase the affordability of health care. While increasing the use of health technology in India will initially be expensive, the costs will eventually diminish. The processes will become more streamlined and focused on each patient, improving overall efficiency and decreasing costs. Investing in technologies such as AI can also help make up for the lacking resources and increase the efficiency with which resources are used by improving the accuracy of diagnoses and treatment.


While health disparities in India are very pronounced, the increased use of health technology in India is promising and could potentially decrease the level of health inequity. Various uses of health technology can minimize the consequences of health worker and doctor shortages, facilitate access to medical services and information and improve doctors’ understanding of medical trends and social factors relating to health.

– Maia Cullen
Photo: Flickr