Study links El Nio to deadly South American disease

In a groundbreaking collaborative study, NASA climatologists and U.S. military health specialists may have discovered a way to predict outbreaks of a deadly South American disease by observing sea surface temperature.

The researchers found that the worst outbreaks of Bartonellosis, an insect-borne disease highly fatal to humans, are closely related to the climate event El Nio. These outbreaks occur one to three months after the warming of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean that is associated with El Nio. If confirmed, the findings could enable health workers to stave off future epidemics before they begin.

"We now have strong evidence that there is a relationship between climate and Bartonellosis," said William K. Lau, head of the Climate Radiation Branch at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. "It's not proven yet, but we are now one step closer."

The evidence could allow health officials to predict and combat epidemics far more effectively.

"It appears that the disease comes in weather-related cycles," said Larry Laughlin, Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS). "If we can prove it, local health officials will be able to take preventive action when they know a 'bad year' is coming. This is a critical factor in developing countries where healthcare resources are limited."

The findings will be presented on January 17 at the American Meteorological Society Meeting in Orlando, Fla.

NASA earth scientists teamed with Laughlin's group at USUHS to study Bartonellosis, a disease that is characterized by life-threatening anemia. There is also a chronic form of the disease that manifests itself in blood-filled, wart-like skin lesions. Bartonellosis appears to be spreading from the mountain valleys of Peru into other regions of Andean South America.

"We think the disease is transmitted to humans by the bite of sand flies, much as malari

Contact: Cynthia M. O'Carroll
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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