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NASA’s Satellite Data Help Save Lives

NASA’s Satellite Data Help Save Lives

For the first time, measurements from our Earth-observing satellites
are being used to help combat a potential outbreak of life-threatening cholera.
Humanitarian teams in Yemen are targeting areas identified by a NASA-supported
project that precisely forecasts high-risk regions based on environmental
conditions observed from space.


Cholera is caused by consuming food or water contaminated with a
bacterium called Vibrio cholerae.


The disease affects millions of people every year and can be
deadly. It remains a major threat to global health, especially in developing
countries, such as Yemen, where access to clean water is limited.


To calculate the likelihood of an outbreak, scientists run a
computer model that takes satellite
observations of things like rain and temperatures and combines them with
information on local sanitation and clean water infrastructure. In 2017,
the model achieved 92 percent
accuracy in predicting the regions where cholera was most likely to occur and
spread in Yemen. An outbreak that year in Yemen was the world’s worst, with
more than 1.1 million suspected cases and more than 2,300 deaths, according to
the World Health Organization.


International humanitarian organizations took notice. In January 2018, Fergus McBean,
a humanitarian adviser with
the U.K.’s Department for International Development, read about the NASA-funded
team’s 2017 results and contacted them with an ambitious challenge: to create
and implement a cholera forecasting system for Yemen, in only four months.

“It was a race against the start of rainy season,” McBean

The U.S. researchers began working with U.K. Aid, the U.K.
Met Office, and UNICEF on the innovative approach to use the model to inform
cholera risk reduction in Yemen.

In March,
one month ahead of the rainy season, the U.K. international development office
began using the model’s forecasts. Early results show the science team’s model
predictions, coupled with Met Office weather forecasts, are helping UNICEF and
other aid groups target their response to where support is needed most.


Photo Credit: UNICEF

“By joining up international expertise with those working on
the ground, we have for the very first time used these sophisticated
predictions to help save lives and prevent needless suffering,” said Charlotte
Watts, chief scientist for United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

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