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Malaria early-warning system shows promise in tackling epidemics

February 1, The Earth Institute at Columbia UniversityMalaria is one of the world's biggest killers, taking the lives of more than 1 million people every year, as well as infecting a staggering 500 million worldwide. Although endemic in several regions of the world, malaria is most acute in Africa, home to an estimated 90 percent of all cases. Early warning systems can assist health programs and services in preventing and controlling the disease in epidemic-prone areas. A recent study shows that climate predictions can help provide health professionals and program managers with warnings of epidemics many months in advance. The study appears in the February 2 issue of Nature.

Climate variability has an important effect on malaria in epidemic-prone areas in Africa, where temperatures and rainfall drive both mosquito and parasite dynamics. In semi-arid Botswana, the National Malaria Control Programme has developed an early-warning system based on population vulnerability, rainfall, and health surveillance to predict and detect unusual changes in the seasonal pattern of disease. The risk of an epidemic in Botswana increases dramatically shortly after a season of good rainfall. Systems developed by the DEMETER project (http://www.ecmwf.int/research/demeter/) make forecasts of seasonal rainfall for much of southern Africa more reliable. An important influence on rainfall in this region is the El Nio/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) which impacts the occurrence of epidemic and non-epidemic years.

By using a number of climate models the researchers were able to consider the uncertainties in the predictions which could then be expressed reliably as probabilities. Overall, the researchers' findings show that these probabilistic climate forecasts can be combined and used effectively in malaria forecasting. According to the study, these forecasts can provide health service managers with warnings of changes in epidemic
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Contact: Clare Oh
coh@ei.columbia.edu
212-854-5479
The Earth Institute at Columbia University
1-Feb-2006


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