In 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.
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