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Satellites monitoring dust storms linked to health risk

Medical researchers are using satellites to track massive dust storms blowing across Africa's Sahel belt. The aim is to learn more about lethal meningitis epidemics that often follow in the dust's wake.

"Meningitis outbreaks take place after a period without rain, low humidity and lots of dust in the air," explained Isabelle Jeanne of the Niger-based Centre de Recherche Mdicale et Sanitaire (CERMES), associated with the international network des Instituts Pasteur and a partner in ESA's Epidemio project.

"The exact correlation is not yet known. But making use of satellite data enables us to follow week by week the development of the dust storms and the appearance of conditions favourable for an epidemic to start."

Meningitis is an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord lining known to cause seizures and deafness in those victims it does not kill outright. Meningococcal meningitis caused by the meningococcus bacteria is the only form of the disease to spread in epidemic form. Outbreaks occur throughout the world but are most common in the 'meningitis belt' of semi-arid sub-Saharan territory known as the Sahel.

Meningitis mainly attacks children and young adults. The 18 nations of the Sahel have under-resourced healthcare systems: without treatment 70% of cases will perish, though with prompt anti-biotic therapy the death rate is reduced to one in ten.

Researchers want to study the hypothesis that the Sahel dry season when wind-blown dust of talcum-powder-consistency can fill the arid air makes the 300 million inhabitants of this region much more vulnerable to meningitis infection.

The source of infection is other people: up to a quarter of the people may be carrying the source of the meningocuccus bacteria without symptoms, spreading the infection through overcrowded living conditions by droplets from coughing or throat secretions. Normally meningococcus dwells harmlessly in the nose and throat it is only wh
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Contact: Mariangela D'Acunto
mariangela.dacunto@esa.int
39-069-418-0856
European Space Agency
10-May-2005


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