NASA helps battle West Nile virus

Maps of West Nile Virus Risk

Wielding its view from above, NASA is joining the fight to curb the spread of the West Nile virus on Earth, the space agency announced last week.

NASA scientists are developing applications for tracking and predicting the spread of the disease, which has killed 150 people in the United States this year, three years after the first cases were reported.

The tools, based on existing remote sensing and mapping technology, will help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health organizations understand how the virus spreads and find ways to combat it.

The stakes are high. The disease, which causes flu-like symptoms and can lead to fatal encephalitis in people with weak immune systems, such as the sick and elderly, infected 149 people from 1999 to 2001, killing 18. This year, more than 2,800 cases have been reported.

Scientists believe infected birds moving along their migration routes may carry the disease around the country, with mosquitoes acting as the conduit to people.

"We don't understand how some of these things are moving and any help is welcome," said Robert McLean, program manager for wildlife diseases at the Agriculture Department's National Wildlife Research Center.

The goal is to prevent future outbreaks by staying a step ahead of the spread. By taking satellite data already being collected and creating digital maps, NASA scientists might tip off health experts to potential hot spots.

Weather data on rainfall and temperatures, for instance, can be used to pinpoint places ripe for warm, standing water — a breeding ground for mosquitoes — and prime for pesticide spraying.

"What the tracking would help us do is to identify areas of potential human health risk so we can be proactive," said Theia Hofstetter, database project manager for the West Nile program at Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

State officials are working with NASA to incorporate some of the agency's environmental and climatic information into the Pennsylvania West Nile Virus Surveillance System. Field collectors input dead bird and mosquito findings into a database through handheld computers or via the Internet. The space agency's geographic information systems would add another layer to the surveillance system.

"The key part, of course, is the GIS," said Hofstetter, who is a water pollution biologist.

Meanwhile, the Center for Health Applications of Aerospace Related Technologies is evaluating how NASA's data can assist officials with locating habitats favorable to birds and mosquitoes in California's Sacramento valley.

In addition to those examples, NASA wants to reach out to other state and local agencies, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of those groups already have projects under way.

"Their help...will allow us to look at the details," McLean said. Also, NASA "has a wealth of information."

The relatively new West Nile program is part of a larger agency effort to add its knowledge to the arsenal for dealing with diseases.

The idea is to take the results of ongoing science research and apply them to a specific problem.

"The point is NASA has unique assets across the country," said Timi Vann, NASA's deputy program manager for public health applications. "We look at how these data can be translated into information products. It could be as simple as a map, a layer of GIS.

"There [have] been some ongoing efforts and now [we're] trying to really engage practice communities [on] how we can integrate those to enhance their decision support," Vann said.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., are already conducting research with stakeholders in mind.

Looking ahead, NASA tools could be applied to other diseases, such as malaria, which has been found in mosquitoes in the Washington, D.C., region, according to Vann.

"There's a lot of potential for being able to use environmental information to better be able to track diseases," Hofstetter said.


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