Satellite images predicting deadly illnesses

By watching colors change on photographs of the Earth’s surface, scientists can figure out, months or even years ahead of time, when a disease might flare up and become a serious hazard.

Traditional methods of surveying populations for following the spread of disease are hard work and a time consuming process, according to biologist Denise Dearing of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. In 2004, Dearing’s team of biologists began working with geographers on a high-tech way to track mice for studying hantavirus through numerous satellite images of their test area in central Utah.

Their study, published last week in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, combined satellite imagery with data from thousands of mice captured over three years. The scientists found that a rise in vegetation led to a potentially illness-causing spike in the mouse population about 12 to 16 months later.

According to Tim Ford, a microbiologist at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, other spread of diseases might be predicted from satellite images as well.

Public health officials could examine the amount and location of standing water where disease-carrying mosquitoes reproduce for malaria. For cholera, they could look at sea surface height and levels of the green pigment chlorophyll since cholera bacteria spends much of their life attached to a floating animal that feeds on chlorophyll-filled plants. The spread of avian flu could be predicted from remote imaging, by mapping rice paddies and bird migration routes to identify potential hotspots for the disease.

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Sachiye Day, VERTICES intern.


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