EUROPE: Space Agency Maps Mosquitoes to Combat Tropical Diseases

  • by Julio Godoy* - Tierramérica (paris)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Tierramérica

This is the rationale behind VECMAP, a mosquito mapping project being undertaken by the European Space Agency (ESA). VECMAP is being used to identify the habitat and distribution of mosquitoes in Europe by combining data from field work and satellites transferred to databases through smart phones.

A testing phase was launched in November 2009, and a workshop to review the initial results was held a year later. The third phase, which began in early May, includes the validation of the complete mapping system and testing of the economic viability of the project, for which budget coverage has been allocated until mid-2013.

There are also plans to test VECMAP in Benin and French Polynesia.

'We are trying to develop the most precise maps possible, especially for vectors of diseases like malaria, dengue and West Nile fever,' the ESA technical officer in charge of the programme, Michiel Kruijff, told Tierramérica.

VECMAP is being carried out with the cooperation of public health agencies in a number of European countries, such as Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Switzerland.

Tropical mosquito-borne diseases like dengue, chikungunya and West Nile fever have rapidly become a public health threat in Europe that is proving difficult to confront. 'We know very little about the distribution of these diseases and their vectors,' said Kruijff.

The presence and spread of these types of diseases depend on many different and interacting factors, such as the current distribution of mosquitoes, their population densities, climate, wind patterns, proximity to bodies of water, land use and vegetation.

In addition, the frequency of intercontinental travel and trade and global warming allow foreign species to establish themselves in new environments, where their natural enemies are not found.

'In cases like these, mapping technology based on satellite and telecommunications allows for the integrated identification of areas where the abundance of mosquitoes, weather conditions, seasonal trends and other variables indicate that a critical public health situation could arise,' said Kruijff.

In his opinion, 'there is a need for maps showing where mosquitoes have been detected, what directions they are moving in, what factors that influence their growth are detectable at a given moment, and when the populations in question will peak.'

These maps could make it possible to design preventive campaigns before epidemics break out, or to implement treatment programmes once an epidemic has begun.

Under the coordination of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), VECMAP integrates numerous technologies to track mosquitoes, making it a sort of 'one-stop-shop for vector mapping,' RIVM entomologist Marieta Braks told Tierramérica.

'The idea is to combine field data in what are suspected to be key regions - temperature, humidity, the presence of stagnant water - and transmit them by smart phone to the satellite global navigation system and integrate them with other data, such as probability of rain, winds and the morbidity rate of the pathology,' explained Braks.

All of these data are then analysed at a central computerised database, she added.

One of these key regions is the French Mediterranean coastline, better known as the French Riviera: the first two 'autochthonous' or locally acquired cases of dengue were detected in Nice in September 2010. In other words, the individuals contracted the tropical disease after being bitten by dengue-carrying mosquitoes in mainland France.

Several cases of dengue and chikungunya were also detected in northern Italy last year, although the individuals involved were apparently infected elsewhere.

During the testing phase, VECMAP was implemented in both France and Italy, as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

VECMAP analysts have developed software that allows for the integration and analysis of all of the data gathered on the ground and via satellite.

The project builds on ESA’s previous experience in vector mapping. The Epidemio project, launched in 2004, helped epidemiologists to observe the behavior of mosquitoes in eastern Africa, with a focus on mosquitoes that transmit malaria.

Like VECMAP, Epidemio integrated data gathered by satellite and through field observations on climate conditions propitious to the reproduction of mosquitoes and the spread of malaria.

*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service