New project maps impact of climate change on tropical diseases

The HEALTHY FUTURES project developed an online interactive atlas that maps and predicts the risk in eastern Africa of three deadly tropical diseases: malaria and Rift Valley fever, both transmitted by mosquitos, and schistosomiasis, which is caused by worms that emerge from freshwater snails.

The atlas presents possible impacts of climate change on places the diseases are found. It uses data from disease modelling and Earth observations, as well as population-level information on background vulnerabilities – social factors such as education level or degree of urbanisation that can indicate susceptibility to these diseases. Users can zoom in on local areas for a more accurate picture of variations in disease risk.

“This was the first project to map the future transmission potential of these diseases dynamically at such a high resolution,” says Mark Booth, who led part of HEALTHY FUTURES while working at project participant Durham University. He is now at nearby Newcastle University.

Model for better solutions

These diseases are neglected in research and data collection, he explains.

“Current maps are based on historical data and often aren’t sensitive enough to predict distribution well,” Booth says, adding that more detailed models could improve public health management.

“These maps show solutions have to adapt to, and reflect, local conditions rather than use a one-size-fits-all approach.”

HEALTHY FUTURES ended in December 2014. Since then, the schistosomiasis tool has been presented to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“We expect it to be part of the evidence used in future WHO action and for models of more effective adaptive solutions,” Booth says.

Such was the project’s value that an issue of specialist journal Geospatial Health was dedicated to its achievements. Research partners have also used the atlas to teach students how to think about future disease scenarios and solutions, according to Booth.

“The project has provided a platform for future spatial modelling of the distribution of infection with neglected tropical diseases and how climate change might impact them,” he adds.

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