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NASA Study Predicted Outbreak of Deadly Virus

Posted Feb 19 2009 5:45pm

A risk-assessment map shows the areas of increased risk of Rift Valley Fever (RVF) in eastern Africa from fall 2006 to spring 2007. Pink areas depict increased risk of disease, while pale green areas reflect normal risk. Yellow dots represent reported RVF cases in high-risk areas, while blue dots represent occurrences in non-risk areas. Credit: Assaf Anyamba and the NASA Earth Observatory
> Larger image An early warning system, more than a decade in development, successfully predicted the 2006-2007 outbreak of the deadly Rift Valley fever in northeast Africa, according to a new study led by NASA scientists.

Rift Valley fever is unique in that its emergence is closely linked to interannual climate variability. Utilizing that link, researchers including Assaf Anyamba, a geographer and remote sensing scientist with the University of Maryland Baltimore County and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., used a blend of NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measurements of sea surface temperatures, precipitation, and vegetation cover to predict when and where an outbreak would occur.

The final product, a Rift Valley fever “risk map,” gave public health officials in East Africa up to six weeks of warning for the 2006-2007 outbreak, enough time to lessen human impact. The researchers described their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The first-of-its-kind prediction is the culmination of decades of research. During an intense El Niño event in 1997, the largest known outbreak of Rift Valley fever spread across the Horn of Africa. About 90,000 people were infected with the virus, which is carried by mosquitoes and transmitted to humans by mosquito bites or through contact with infected livestock.

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