Scientists link environmental, disease data to help combat malaria in Ethiopia

April 22, 2014
Senior scientist Michael Wimberly, second from right, inpects mosquito breeding sites in the Amhara region of Ethiopia with researchers from SDSU and public health collaborators from the Health, Development and Anti-Malaria Association.

Dealing with malaria is a fact of life for more than 91 million Ethiopians. Each year four to five million contract malaria, one of the biggest health problems in this poor country.

"I was sick twice a year," recalled Woubet Alemu, an SDSU doctoral student and a native of Ethiopia. The mosquito-transmitted illness causes headache, chills and vomiting.

Alemu's stepmother got after childbirth. By the time the family took her to the hospital 18 miles away, it was too late. She died within a week.

The incidence of malaria was high when he was a child, then it drastically decreased, but within the last few years, it has become more prevalent, Alemu explained.

Despite improvements in the health care system, transportation and poverty make combating the seasonal disease challenging, according to Michael Wimberly, senior scientist at the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence.

Through a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, he and a team of South Dakota scientists will combine environmental data gathered through earth-imaging satellites and surveillance data from public in the Amhara region of Ethiopia to anticipate malaria outbreaks.

Dealing with high risk, limited resources

The Amhara region has more than 17 million people, 90 percent living in rural areas with most of those engaged in subsistence-level farming. Alemu, whose family has farmed in the Amhara for generations, said the small grains they grow are used to feed the family. "We don't have enough cash crops." Consequently, they are unable to pay for medicine.

"This region has one of highest malaria burdens in the country," said Wimberly, who has worked on early warning systems for West Nile Virus and malaria.

Sampling mosquito larvae in a seasonally flooded pasture in the Mahara region of Ethiopia will give senior scientist Michael Wimberly and research scientist Gabriel Senay data they need to help predict malaria outbreaks.

Other team members are senior scientist Geoffrey Henebry, SDSU computer scientist Yi Liu and Gabriel Senay, a research physical scientist at U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, commonly known as EROS. Senay is also a native of Ethiopia.

Considering source of infection

Only one genus of mosquito, Anopheles, carries the malarial parasite Plasmodium, Wimberly explained. He and his team examine factors, such as temperature and rainfall, which influence the mosquito population.

Peak times for malaria transmission coincide with the planting season—April through June, and harvest—September through December, according to Alemu. "It's a rural disease," said Wimberly.

Ethiopia has a monsoon climate so mosquitoes "are knocked down in the dry season and then have to build up their populations again" when the rains come, Wimberly noted.

His team has found that what happens in the beginning of the rainy season provides some long-term indicators of transmission potential in terms of mosquitoes.

However, he cautioned, "climate is not the only driver, so we can't always get very precise predictions." If the is not present, high mosquito numbers alone will not result in an epidemic, but it's something that must be monitored.

When infected workers travel from the lowland area to the highlands, he noted, "that can be the ignition to start the fire."

Tracking malaria cases

This project will use a unique, two-pronged approach, according to Wimberly. Predictive software tools will be used to combine massive online archives of environmental data from earth-imaging satellites with disease statistics from Ethiopian public health officials through collaboration with the Amhara Regional Health Bureau, the Federal Ministry of Health and the Health, Development and Anti-Malaria Association, a local nongovernmental organization. The Anti-Malaria Association seeks to provide free medicine to villagers, according to Alemu, who once volunteered with the aid organization.

"By tracking malaria cases as they occur, we can look for anomalies or spikes in the case data, indicators of a bigger epidemic or peak," Wimberly pointed out. However, disease data alone doesn't provide much lead time for preventive measures.

Researchers have always shared their information with emergency management people, but Wimberly said, "our idea is to combine environmental and disease data in an integrated system. We bring [public health professionals] to the table up front and they teach us what they need."

With this approach, the researchers hope to "come up with something more practical and usable than we've seen in the past." The collaboration will help emergency managers decide what they'll do if they have a six-, three- or even one-month lead time.

"That's ultimately part of the research, taking the models and linking them to decision support," Wimberly noted.

Then agencies can mobilize the resources to combat malaria where and when it's most likely to occur and, ultimately, save lives.

Explore further: How the immune system prevents repeated malaria fever episodes in highly exposed children

Related Stories

How the immune system prevents repeated malaria fever episodes in highly exposed children

April 17, 2014
Children in Mali (and many other regions where malaria is common) are infected with malaria parasites more than 100 times a year, but they get sick with malaria fever only a few times. To understand how the immune system ...

Scientists testing improved early warning system for West Nile virus

November 2, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—When weather radar shows a funnel cloud, the tornado sirens howl, and folks run for cover. With outbreaks of West Nile virus, it's not that simple.

Travelers push US malaria count highest in 40 yrs

October 31, 2013
U.S. malaria cases are at their highest level in four decades, mostly from Americans bringing home an unwelcome souvenir from their travels.

Warmer temperatures push malaria to higher elevations, research shows

March 6, 2014
Researchers have debated for more than two decades the likely impacts, if any, of global warming on the worldwide incidence of malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that infects more than 300 million people each year.

Australia gives $104 million to fighting malaria

November 2, 2012
(AP)—Australia will spend more than 100 million Australian dollars ($104 million) over the next four years to help reduce deaths from malaria in the Asia-Pacific region.

Recommended for you

Finish your antibiotics course? Maybe not, experts say

July 27, 2017
British disease experts on Thursday suggested doing away with the "incorrect" advice to always finish a course of antibiotics, saying the approach was fuelling the spread of drug resistance.

Co-infection with two common gut pathogens worsens malnutrition in mice

July 27, 2017
Two gut pathogens commonly found in malnourished children combine to worsen malnutrition and impair growth in laboratory mice, according to new research published in PLOS Pathogens.

Phase 3 trial confirms superiority of tocilizumab to steroids for giant cell arteritis

July 26, 2017
A phase 3 clinical trial has confirmed that regular treatment with tocilizumab, an inhibitor of interleukin-6, successfully reduced both symptoms of and the need for high-dose steroid treatment for giant cell arteritis, the ...

A large-scale 'germ trap' solution for hospitals

July 26, 2017
When an infectious airborne illness strikes, some hospitals use negative pressure rooms to isolate and treat patients. These rooms use ventilation controls to keep germ-filled air contained rather than letting it circulate ...

Researchers report new system to study chronic hepatitis B

July 25, 2017
Scientists from Princeton University's Department of Molecular Biology have successfully tested a cell-culture system that will allow researchers to perform laboratory-based studies of long-term hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections. ...

Male hepatitis B patients suffer worse liver ailments, regardless of lifestyle

July 25, 2017
Why men with hepatitis B remain more than twice as likely to develop severe liver disease than women remains a mystery, even after a study led by a recent Drexel University graduate took lifestyle choices and environments ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.