NASA is progressing in a new method to predict malaria epidemics in Myanmar from space, as the development of new drug-resistant strains in Southeast Asia put at risks the efforts to eradicate the mortal disease worldwide. The objective of global malaria quashing within a generation, by 2050, may sound pompous but within reach, claimed The Lancet in a report this week.

Between 2010 and 2017, malaria cases and demises dropped by more than 90 per cent in Myanmar according to the World Health Organization (WHO) figures, an achievement primarily attributed to improved rural health services and broader use of treated bed nets.

Nonetheless the country has a higher occurrence than its neighbors in the Mekong region till yet. Many drug-resistant strains are gaining foot across Southeast Asia and it is something to be worried about that these could migrate to Africa where more than 90 percent of cases occur worldwide. According to scientist Tatiana Loboda, NASA is installing “cutting edge” spatial technology to fight malaria outbursts even before they happen.

animated image of the world by nasa

She is applying her knowledge in risk modelling and geospatial—together with a background in forecasting wildfire outbreaks in the US—to recognise possible hotspots so medicines and health workers can be prepared ahead.

Loboda who is a professor at Maryland University said that several people use spatial modelling but NASA is doing this with greater depth and capabilities. The satellites deliver meteorological data, including atmospheric water content,  land surface temperatures and information about land cover, including shrubland, forests, settlements or water.

These are then integrated with socio-economic data collected by teams of researchers conducting in-depth studies with sample populations in the field.

world map malaria 2018
World map showing the occurrence of malaria, as per the WHO World malaria report 2018.

Still the project is in its third year but Loboda’s group has already seen a high association between the percentage of deforestation and the disease. One unverified concept is that these areas—often dotted with mines, logging sites and plantation have several inconsistent numbers of seasonal workers or migrant, carrying with them new strains of the parasite.

The Maryland University group is working closely with military scientist and local government, gathering data from troops and civilians separately. However, the challenges arise in a country where armed forces keep their activities blanketed.

Loboda, in an interview to AFP in Yangon, said that it feels like working blindfolded as the team is not allowed to question where it goes. More on there is an absence of access to Myanmar’s many skirmish areas.

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Loboda said that she had always worked with big data and she wants to cover the whole country, but somehow she is restricted. The project is not exempt from geopolitics. The condition of US-Myanmar relations can obscure meetings with the military in the capital Naypyidaw. “Sometimes I can go, sometimes I can’t,” Loboda said.


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