One of the early success stories in the science of disease came in 1854, during a crippling cholera outbreak in London. Physician John Snow painstakingly recorded the locations of every cholera victim for more than a week, and by marking those locations on a map, he was able to zero in on the source: a contaminated water pump on the corner of Broad Street. Armed with that map, he convinced city officials to shut off the pump and ended an epidemic that claimed hundreds of lives.
More than 150 years later, our method for tracking and fighting outbreaks is still much the same, although our tools have improved since 1854. NASA satellites in space are tracking a cholera outbreak in Yemen, and their data can help doctors on the ground better treat the infected. Instead of tracking incidents to cholera after people have already died, NASA’s data can predict outbreaks before they occur, enabling doctors and scientists to reach the places they’re most needed as soon as possible.
Cholera is caused by a bacteria called Vibrio cholerae, and people most commonly become infected after drinking contaminated water. In the aftermath of disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, cholera incidence often skyrockets, but it’s tough for authorities to predict where the worst outbreaks will happen until it’s too late.
A NASA team used environmental data—like rainfall levels and air and water temperatures—from the agency’s weather satellites to build a prediction map of where the worst outbreaks will occur in the country of Yemen. Yemen’s rainy season is particularly conducive to cholera outbreaks, and last year’s was particularly bad. NASA’s model was 92 percent accurate at predicting outbreaks during that season, although the information came too late to be useful to medical teams.
For this year’s rainy season, researchers spent even more time developing their prediction algorithm, hoping to use their data to save as many lives as possible. For this year’s rainy season, the algorithm guided humanitarian groups to the most critical areas and saved countless lives.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics USA