Spotlight: Climate and Meningitis in Africa A Google Earth Tour
The International Research Institute for Climate and Society and Google are offering a guided tour of Africa to teach you about the relationship between climate and deadly meningitis outbreaks there. No need to pack your bags, though: it's a virtual tour, one you can run on Google Earth from your living room.
The climate and meningitis tour is one of a number that Google has launched for the Conference Of the Parties in Copenhagen, Denmark, known as COP15. Al Gore gives the introductory tour, called "Confronting Climate Change". Google.org will be also hosting a briefing about the tours at the Climate Change Kiosk in Copenhagen's Bella Center on December 10, 11 a.m.
Through the Google Earth application, users can explore the potential impacts of climate change and some the solutions for managing it.
"The IRI tour integrates real climate data, beautiful imagery and the collaborative narration of a host of climate and health experts," says Kiersten Jennings Chou, who worked with IRI staff and Google to create the tour. "It is a powerful tool to allow people around the world to visualize the impact of this devastating disease," she says. Jennings Chou is a former eighth-grade science teacher and recent graduate of Columbia University's Masters Program in Climate and Society.
Meningitis outbreaks occur yearly in 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, primarily in the 'Meningitis Belt', which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia. They place undue strain on the overtaxed health systems of these countries. Every few years, the outbreaks rise to epidemic proportions that have a devastating impact, especially on impoverished communities. In 2009, for example, there have been more than 55,000 cases in northern Nigeria and nearly 14,000 in neighboring Niger, according to the World Health Organization.
The epidemic form of the disease is caused by bacteria that attack the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis kills approximately one in ten of its victims, and leaves many survivors with lifelong disabilities. Despite these tragic statistics, the mechanisms that drive the dynamics of this dry-season disease are still not completely understood. Meningitis can be prevented through vaccination, but in order for the vaccine to be effective, it must be given before outbreaks occur. Researchers at IRI are using their expertise in health and climate forecasting and modeling to try to help decision-makers stay one step ahead of the outbreaks. They are providing scientific and practical support to the Meningitis Environmental Risk Information Technologies (MERIT) project.
"Bacterial meningitis is a devastating climate-sensitive disease, and the climate community has something to contribute toward its control," says Madeleine Thomson, who is the chair of IRI's Africa Program and who sits on the MERIT steering committee. "MERIT is a collaborative effort between the health and climate community designed to serve decision-makers at the local level. The collaboration brings together a wide range of scientific and operational expertise and is supported by many institutions besides the IRI." These include the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization,Group on Earth Observations, the Health and Climate Foundation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and, most significantly, the Meningitis Vaccine Project. The third international MERIT meeting recently took place in Niger, hosted by the African Centre for Meteorological Applications in Development and the Centre de Recherche Médicale et Sanitaire. Please visit the MERIT home page for the latest information.
The Google Earth tour references some of this important work. It also pulls in climate data from the IRI's Climate Data Library, a powerful and freely accessible collection of online tools which allows users to view, analyze and download more than 400 climate-related data sets through a standard web browser.
"Connecting Google Earth to the Data Library provides users with seamless access to climate data," says Data Library manager, Benno Blumenthal, "Users can request portions of a dataset or perform analyses with the data, and have those results transferred to Google Earth with a simple click."
The tour is the latest in a number of collaborations between the IRI and both Google and its philanthropic arm, Google.org. One project is improving the use of forecasts, rainfall data and other climate information in East Africa, and building stronger connections between weather, climate and health specialists so they can better predict and prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases. Another project, led by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, aims to use weather forecasting to predict delays in the end of the meningitis season in West Africa and thereby help identify populations in most need of vaccination.
For the full transcript of the tour, including quotes from the World Health Organization and IRI partners in Ethiopia and Ghana, click here.
It has been called the most neglected among neglected diseases, but not for its lack of impact. Meningitis, an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and the spinal cord, infects quickly and can kill up to half of its victims if left untreated. Survivors rarely emerge unscathed, often suffering permanent brain damage or deafness.
While individual cases of meningitis are found worldwide, the most devastating epidemics occur in the notorious Meningitis Belt of sub-Saharan Africa, which stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. Here, the disease has affected close to a million people in 25 countries in the past two decades.
Much about how and why these epidemics occur is unknown, but we do know that climate plays a key role. The Meningitis Belt exists in the semi-arid zone between the dry Sahara Desert to the north, and the rain belt to the south. Having a better understanding of what drives the onset and spread of meningitis can mean the difference between life and death. While meningitis can be prevented through vaccination, there aren't enough doses or enough workers to immunize everyone, so researchers are trying to predict when and where outbreaks will occur.
"Regarding the strategy, what we would like to do is to improve our decision system, to try to make a kind of preemptive vaccination, to start the vaccination just before the outbreak occurs," says Eric Bertherat, from the World Health Organization's department of Epidemic Pandemic Alert and Response. "And for that, we need to better understand what are the risk factors for having these outbreaks in each district."
Not surprisingly, the burden of meningitis is heaviest on the poor.
"In time of epidemics or outbreaks the health system is disorganized. The community is disorganized, because people have to be burying their loved ones," says Dr. Forgor Abudulai Adams, from the Navrongo Health Research Center in Ghana.
"People become scared, panic, they don't know what is happening, whether they will be next. And generally the burden on the family is very huge- lives are lost, resources have been spent impromptu, funds have been looked for to cover bills and take care of whatever expenses they might have incurred."
Outbreaks in the Meningitis Belt have long been associated with the dusty seasonal winds that blow off the Sahara. Starting in November, winds blow from the Sahara, bringing dry, dusty conditions to the Belt. During this time, the number of meningitis cases begins to rise. By April, more humid air is brought by winds blowing in from the Atlantic. This marks the start of the rainy season, and the number of meningitis cases again declines.
In recent decades, the extent of the Belt seems to be changing - meningitis is occurring in more areas of Ethiopia, for example, and researchers are trying to understand why.
"Meningitis used to occur mostly in the western and the northwestern part of the country," says Dr. Yonas Asfaw from Ethiopia's Health Ministry. "As you know, the meningitis belt involves most of the western part of Ethiopia, and the pattern of occurrence in the previous years was 8-10 years on a cyclical mode."
"But as of the past 10 years, meningitis is a yearly phenomenon involving a smaller place and a much milder form than the previous years. So meningitis is moving now from the west to the southern part and it has become a yearly phenomenon."
Experts are working to develop better forecasting systems to predict areas where epidemics will most likely occur. The National Meteorological Agency has formed partnerships with research centers like the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and European meteorological agencies to expand access to up-to-date weather forecasts and satellite data. But in order to fully understand the disease dynamics of meningitis, more data are needed.
"Our meteorological stations mainly situated following the main roads and also in the small towns or cities, so we don't have such a significant number of meteorological stations particularly over these remote areas where we used to get these meningitis cases," says Diriba Korecha Dadi, from the National Meteorological Agency. "We try to identify the potential climate parameters that might cause the spreading or emerging of meningitis, particularly temperature and the onset of the rainy season over this western part of the country where the meningitis belt extends."
In Ethiopia, a Climate and Health Working Group, formed in 2008, includes experts from the National Meteorological Agency, the Ministry of Health and other key partners. This kind of collaboration is critical for making vaccination campaigns more efficient and the stockpiling of medicines more timely. Climate and Health Working Groups have now also been formed in Kenya and Madagascar.
The IRI is committed to bringing these communities together, supporting the activities of climate and health working groups and providing technical expertise and training. In additional to regional capacity building efforts, an annual Summer Institute is held at the IRI for climate and health professionals from around the world. To date, 25 professionals from 19 countries have benefited from this training.
About the IRI The IRI works on the development and implementation of strategies to manage climate related risks and opportunities. Building on a multidisciplinary core of expertise, IRI partners with research institutions and local stakeholders to best understand needs, risks and possibilities. The IRI supports sustainable development by bringing the best science to bear on managing climate risks in sectors such as agriculture, food security, water resources, and health. By providing practical advancements that enable better management of climate related risks and opportunities in the present, we are creating solutions that will increase adaptability to long term climate change.
The IRI was established as a cooperative agreement between NOAA's Climate Program Office and Columbia University. It is part of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and is located at the Lamont Campus.
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