Researchers at the University of Pretoria’s Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control (UP ISMC) have turned to satellite data to predict malaria outbreaks and mobile apps to control and monitor the disease.

Satellite tech to map at-risk areas and predict outbreaks

The university is using satellites to predict malaria outbreaks using geographic information systems and advanced satellite imaging to identify the environmental factors that allow malaria-spreading mosquitos to breed and thrive.

“Using remote sensing as part of an early-warning system for outbreaks, we can forecast malaria occurrences from three to six months in the future,” said UP ISMC Doctorate student, Abiodun Morakinyo Adeola.

“Our predictions using this model have been correct nine out of 10 times in all five Mpumalanga communities, which formed part of the study. This level of accuracy is on par with the World Health Organisation’s standards,” continued Adeola.

UP ISMC started with the Remote Sensing for Malaria Control in Africa programme that makes use of remote sensing earth observation satellites to collect data on variables that impact malaria. The initiative started in 2015 in collaboration with the French National Centre for Space Studies, the South African National Space Agency, South African Weather Service and other stakeholders.

Since then, the researchers have been writing protocols and applying for funding towards a major cross-border study where satellites will be used to collect the relevant remotely sensed data.

Director of the UP ISMC, Professor Tiaan de Jager, says malaria-related or linked variable data are acquired by remote sensing earth observation satellites that are specifically programmed and equipped with optical instruments like infrared.

“The collected data is entered into various spacial, mathematical and statistical models to identify or determine specific patterns in the data that can be used in developing surveillance systems, risk maps and early-warning systems. The data collected remotely could also be used along with field-observed data,” said Prof de Jager.

Work has been done in the northern part of the Vhembe district, Limpopo province and directly across the border in Matabeleland South province, Zimbabwe, as part of the UP ISMC cross-border project. UP ISMC plans to collect similar data in Maputo, Mozambique, specifically the Namaacha area near the Swaziland, Mozambique and South African borders.

According to Prof de Jager, the research stemming from the programme will result in important outbreak detection and early-warning systems that will help in the fight against malaria.

mHealth to control and monitor malaria

In addition to satellite technology, the university is also making use of mSpray and Buddy mobile apps to control and monitor malaria. The mSpray app was developed at the University of California Berkeley with input from researchers at the UP ISMC and focuses on malaria control data management for the annual indoor residual spraying programme. While the Malaria Buddy, provides data on malaria risk, prevention and symptoms for travellers in malaria endemic areas.

The indoor residual spraying programme is the current preferred method for malaria control in at-risk areas. And, until recently, there was no centralised digital database to ensure spraying was effective, regular and safe.

“Previously, the spray workers would go into homes, spray the walls and fill in cards. Come the next malaria season, they would go back and spray, but there was no clear database recording what substance was used, where was sprayed or when,” concluded de Jager.

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