NASA Satellites helping fight Malaria?

NASA’s many satellites that observe the Earth from space have a variety of useful, practical applications, in this article, we explain how they are helping to fight Malaria across the globe.

First, about malaria, though: this is a deadly disease that is carried and transmitted by mosquitoes – about 40 different species, according to estimates by NASA. Although a global disease, many of the infections are concentrated in the Amazon basin, which worryingly has seen a recent increase in malaria cases, including fatalities, according to the 2016 Malaria Report of the World Health Organization. Malaria is transmitted by female mosquitoes when they feed on human blood; they also pass it on to their offspring which they prefer to lay in areas of standing water. What can public health officials in that region do to address this worrying development?

This is where NASA comes in. NASA and its Applied Sciences Program is funding the LDAS – which stands for Land Data Assimilation System – a project in which the NASA satellites in space above the Amazon rain forests will track the activities that may attract Anopheles darlingi, the mosquito that hosts the malaria virus – and thus allow us to better predict and control malaria outbreaks. What are these activities? Remember that mosquitoes breed where-ever there are sources of standing water. So the satellites will be looking for environmental factors (rainfall, air temperature, and humidity, soil moisture, vegetation growth) that tend to generate those conditions, as well as human activities that modify the environment (for example, logging). By identifying those areas with conditions most conducive to mosquito breeding – like high precipitation, warm air temperature, high vegetation growth (which provides shelter and resting places for mosquitoes) – we will better be able to predict malaria outbreaks: for even though these areas may be far from human habitation, an unfortunate fact is that loggers enter the jungle precisely where there are bodies of water on which they can transport their timber. This is generally how the malaria virus first spreads to humans. Malaria, indeed, is frequently a byproduct of logging and deforestation. By carefully tracking such activities from space, NASA’s program will be able to forecast malaria outbreaks – right down to household levels according to NASA officials.

The upshot is that by analyzing the data gained from NASA’s satellites, we become better able to predict where malaria outbreaks will occur next, and thus public-health officials can better prepare and coordinate a response – for example by allocating aid to those communities living near mosquito/malaria breeding grounds.

A final question is: how far advanced is the whole project? Well, it’s now in the third – and last – year of if NASA grant, so it shouldn’t be long at all before the LDAS prediction tools are up and running. Apparently, the Peruvian government is becoming familiar with LDAS as we speak, and other countries in the region (Ecuador, Colombia) have also expressed their interest in this project.

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