Earthbound mission for NASA: Public health

From an orbit hundreds of miles above Earth, NASA's constellation of climate-research satellites may not be able to spot a flea in the desert Southwest.

But a program that uses space observations to pinpoint the habitats of rodents carrying plague-infected fleas could warn of disease outbreaks in vulnerable areas of New Mexico.

Run by NASA's Applied Sciences Program, the fast-developing tool is mining vegetation, rainfall, temperature and topography data from 14 climate-monitoring satellites to predict and prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases.

The focus is on "vector-borne" diseases spread by rodents, mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. By monitoring climate, precipitation and ground-cover changes that encourage these creatures to thrive, scientists can offer early warnings about potential outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, West Nile virus and bubonic plague.

"This is a huge breakthrough revolution in the field of public health," says program manager John Haynes, who unveiled NASA's infectious-disease-finding abilities for doctors attending the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene meeting in Philadelphia last month.

Satellites have been used to predict the weather since 1960. Their use in making public-health decisions is only about a decade old.

"There's been a paradigm shift," Haynes says. NASA is reaching out to "front-line troops who are our nation's health defense."

Information from the remote sensors is being shared with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Defense Department, state health agencies, the World Health Organization and foreign governments.

Unlike surveys of patients, which are prone to human error, satellite data "provides a reliable tool for public health that … is not confounded by other factors," says Teresa Fryberger, NASA's Applied Sciences Earth Science Division director.

Among the diseases targeted:

Malaria

A parasitic disease spread by mosquitoes in tropical climates, malaria is a top concern for military planners. In 2003, one-third of U.S. personnel involved in a peacekeeping mission in Liberia came down with the disease.

By combining ground observations with satellite measures of temperature, rainfall, ground-cover density and soil moisture, NASA and military researchers in Thailand and Indonesia have identified hot spots. Maj. Jittawadee Murphy of the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences in Bangkok says in an e-mail: "Each species of mosquitoes prefers different and unique habitat to breed. Therefore we're able to estimate mosquito populations in each terrain, predict disease cases at particular time(s) of the year, and conduct research studies for disease control and prevention at the right place and the right time."

Murphy also said scientists use NASA data to predict outbreaks of scrub typhus, a sometimes fatal disease endemic to Southeast Asia, by locating habitats of chigger mites that spread it.

West Nile virus

NASA's Terrestrial Observation & Prediction System combines satellite imagery and ground-station data to collect, integrate and analyze in nearly real time 30 environmental factors that could contribute to the mosquito-borne disease.

William Reisen, a research entomologist at the Center for Vectorborne Diseases at the University of California-Davis, is lead scientist on a project. He shares data with state public health officials and 63 mosquito-control districts.

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