Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wind and dust can predict Sahel meningitis outbreaks

Samuel Mintz at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: Scientists may soon be able to forecast disease outbreaks in sub-Saharan African’s “meningitis belt” using weather data – and use that to plan early vaccination drives to prevent or limit casualties.

In the “meningitis belt” of sub-Saharan Africa, which stretches across the Sahel from Senegal to Ethiopia, major epidemics of lethal meningitis are routine. A devastating 1996-97 outbreak killed about 25,000 people.

An effective new vaccine has driven a decrease in meningitis, but the standard procedure in the region has been to carry out vaccination drives and antibiotic treatment of the disease in districts already suffering outbreaks – and in some cases help arrives too late to make a significant impact, health officials say.

In the near future, though, scientists might be able to use climate factors such as wind and dust conditions to forecast these epidemics and develop earlier vaccination strategies to prevent or limit casualties.

New research carried out in Niger by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society found that measured levels of wind and dust can be used to predict some of the annual variability in meningitis outbreaks, at both national and district levels.

 “We’ve known that the disease is associated to climate and environmental issues for a long time, because it’s very seasonal,” said Carlos Perez Garcia-Pando, one of the lead authors of the report. The challenge, he said, to figure out which climate factors were important in order to better equip public health decision makers to act.

“The idea was to try to use models and observations from satellites and all kinds of data on potential (climate-related) parameters that might be affecting the disease, and try to use that information to provide advance warning,” Perez said....

A sandstorm in Chad, shot by Darcy Burbank, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license

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