Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) has received $900,000 from Google.org to improve the use of climate information to predict disease outbreaks in East Africa. The award is part of a wider Google program that funds projects to map hot spots of emerging diseases and improve early-warning systems in resource-poor countries.
Short-term climate phenomena such as increased rainfall or drought can bring outbreaks of many diseases, including malaria, meningitis, and dengue. IRI, a part of Columbia's Earth Institute, is recognized globally for using climate data to help predict and prevent such outbreaks. It has already employed early-warning systems in Senegal, Botswana, Colombia, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, and Sri Lanka. "IRI's work has shown that climate information is a vital tool to helping identify hot spots where diseases may emerge," said Frank Rijsberman, program director at Google.org. "We're thrilled that they'll link climate and health specialists in the effort to predict and prevent the next pandemic." Google.org is the philanthropic arm of the Internet company Google.
Malaria is caused by parasites spread by mosquitoes, which thrive in moist environments, and so outbreaks often follow heavy rainy seasons. Meningitis, on the other hand, spreads human to human via microbes that may invade respiratory systems irritated by dry weather. Thus rainfall and temperature can heavily influence the pattern and timing of epidemics. Countries with few resources are often unable to predict these changes or respond to them.
"Google.org recognizes just how important the climate-disease connection is to preventing illnesses, saving lives and protecting livelihoods," said Stephen Zebiak, IRI's director-general. "IRI is committed to putting this generous grant to critical use in vulnerable areas."
IRI will launch the project in Ethiopia, where malaria and meningitis are of particular concern. The program will build on IRI's experience in developing a malaria early-warning system for southern Africa, where it has worked with state meteorological and health agencies to use seasonal forecasts, satellite measurements and other data to inform resource allocation.
"We are beginning in Ethiopia because it has a well-recognized need," said IRI epidemiologist Stephen Connor, a lead scientist on the project. "In regard to malaria, Ethiopia has the highest epidemic-prone population in Africa. About two-thirds of the people have low immunity, and the disease is life threatening across all age ranges. Climate information will help make essential investments in disease control much more effective."
IRI has already helped form a working group chaired by Ethiopia's Ministry of Health and the National Meteorological Agency. Last month, the group organized a workshop in the capital city of Addis Ababa, bringing together climate and health professionals from different parts of the country. They reviewed the climate information that health professionals currently use, and the information needed to make prediction and prevention capabilities stronger. Similar meetings are planned for the future.
The grant will fund two scientists from the meteorological agency to train for six months at the University of Reading (United Kingdom), so they can improve Ethiopia's rainfall data. Another scientist will come to IRI, in Palisades, N.Y., to learn how to develop statistical forecasting tools for seasonal climate variability.
The project is aimed at developing disease-mapping tools and other applications, housed in IRI's virtual open-access Data Library and Map Rooms, which can be readily viewed and queried in web-browser platforms such as Google Earth.