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NASA's investment in cholera predictions helps save lives in Yemen



The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), with the support of UK Aid, distributes clean water and information on cholera to prevent outbreaks of the disease in Yemen. Humanitarian teams in Yemen target areas identified by a NASA-supported project that accurately predicts high-risk regions based on the environmental conditions observed from space. Credit: UNICEF

For the first time measurements of NASA Earth observation satellites are being used to combat a possible outbreak of life-threatening cholera. Humanitarian teams in Yemen target areas identified by a NASA-supported project that accurately predicts high-risk regions based on the environmental conditions observed from space.

"By combining international expertise with those working on-site, we have used these sophisticated predictions for the first time to save lives and prevent unnecessary suffering for thousands of Yemenis," said Charlotte Watts, chief scientist at the United Nations United Nations Department of International Development of the Kingdom.

Cholera is a disease caused by eating food or water that is contaminated with a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae. The disease affects millions of people every year, leading to severe diarrhea and even death. Especially in developing countries like Yemen, where access to clean water is limited, it remains a major threat to global health.

Starting this spring, the British government and international aid groups in Yemen started using these new cholera predictions to work on reducing cholera risk. This work involves promoting good hygiene to prevent the spread of water borne diseases and to distribute hygiene and cholera treatment kits. Results so far indicate that the predictive model could fundamentally change the behavior of the international community against cholera.


A new modeling approach to satellite data is likely to enhance our ability to develop cholera risk maps in various regions of the world. Source: NASA / Ryan Fitzgibbons

Research funded by the NASA Applied Cholera Outcome Research Program is being led by hydrologist and civil engineer Antar Jutla at West Virginia University, Morgantown, with Rita Colwell and Anwar Huq, microbiologists at the university of Maryland, College Park

The NASA forecasting tool divides the entire country of Yemen into regions the size of a typical US district and predicts the risk of cholera outbreaks in each region. To calculate the likelihood of an outbreak, the research team is conducting a computer model that combines satellite observations of environmental conditions that affect cholera bacteria with information about sanitation and drinking water infrastructures.

The Forecasting tool analyzes a variety of NASA satellite observations. These include precipitation data from the Mission Global Precipitation Measurement, air and sea temperatures from the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instruments on NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites, and measurements of coastal phytoplankton concentrations.

The model achieved an accuracy of 92 percent in predicting the regions where cholera most likely occurred and spread this year, and even identified inland areas that are not normally prone to disease but suffered outbreaks , The Yemeni Cholera outbreak was the worst in the world in 2017, with more than 1.1 million suspected cases and more than 2,300 deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), helping to save lives in Yemen “/>

Cholera risk based on analysis and satellite data in Yemen, June 2017. Blue color indicates a low cholera risk, while red color indicates a high cholera risk. Credit: West Virginia University / Antar Jutla

"The model has done a tremendous job in Yemen to detect triggers of cholera outbreaks," said Jutla, "but there is still much to be done for this predictive model to provide accurate predictions everywhere."

International humanitarian organizations took notice of it. In January, Fergus McBean, a humanitarian adviser to the UK Department of International Development, read an article about the results of the NASA-funded team for 2017 and contacted them with an ambitious challenge: developing and implementing a cholera research system for Yemen just four months.

"It was a race against the start of the rainy season," said McBean.

US researchers began working with UK Aid, the UK Met Office and UNICEF on the innovative approach to the model (19659018) NASA investment in cholera predictions helps save lives in Yemen “/>

The actual number of cholera Cases in June 2017. The red area represent reported cholera cases. Credit: West Virginia University / Antar Jutla

In March, a month before the rainy season, the United Kingdom's International Development Bureau began using the model's predictions. Preliminary results show that the science team's model predictions, combined with the weather forecasts provided by Met Office, help UNICEF and other aid agencies respond to the most needed support.

"This breakthrough initiative is a testament to the importance of interdisciplinary projects and multi-agency efforts to improve disease preparedness and response," said John Haynes, program manager for health and air quality applications at NASA's Earth Science Division at the agency's headquarters Washington.

McBean believes in this new approach. "We are confident that we will follow the model's predictions this year and we know that early action is a more effective way of doing business and is likely to result in a much better outcome for people."

Colwell, who compared the results for 2017 in Yemen After he had passed the first stage of a three-stage drug trial and discovered the drug, he saved the life of a particular type of patient. The next step for the science team is to create global risk maps for cholera. In the same way meteorologists send out warnings about severe storms, these risk maps and forecasts could allow people to prepare for and prevent outbreaks.


Further information:
The UN warns of a possible new cholera epidemic in Yemen


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