News
01.02.2011

Forecasting health from weather

Can weather forecasts be used to predict diseases such as malaria? UiB researchers cooperate with Ethiopian institutions in an attempt to find out.

Strålingsmåler

Photo: 
Ellen Viste

The life of the human being is clearly affected by weather and climate. We complain about soaking rain, shiver in icy winds and hide under trees to avoid heat-strokes. Weather is a pain, notoriously bad. But can we turn it the other way around? If problems are caused by weather, can we use our knowledge of the atmosphere to steer clear of trouble? In the case of malaria, reliable weather forecasts may be part of the cure.

In the Ethiopian Malaria Prediction System (EMaPS) project, Ethiopian and Norwegian institutions work together on collecting data and developing a modeling framework for malaria forecasts. Malaria is a major public health problem in Ethiopia. Practical tools for predicting malaria epidemics based on weather and climate information would allow a more efficient use of limited resources for malaria control.

Prediciting malaria

The dynamics of malaria epidemics are a complex interplay, involving the natural environment as well as social factors. The distribution of malaria is essentially dependent on climate. In order to lay their eggs, mosquitoes need water, and the temperature of the air affects the development of both mosquitoes and malaria parasites. Coupled with demographic factors such as population density and immunity, weather forms the basis of malaria prediction.

If malaria outbreaks can be predicted from weather observations, the warning time may increase from a couple of weeks to 1–2 months. Adding seasonal weather forecasts, the lead could be as long as 3–5 months. EMaPS combines information about weather and water with demographic data to predict mosquito development and malaria risk.

The overall aim for the project is to set up an early warning system for malaria outbreaks in Ethiopia.

Creating scientists

Through collaboration on climate and health research, the project also aims to strengthen PhD and MSc programs in Ethiopia and Norway. EMaPs has 8 PhD students and more than 20 MSc students, working on meteorology, hydrology and water availability, mosquito behavior and malaria transmission.

The students come from the universities in Addis Ababa and Arba Minch in Ethiopia, the National Meteorological Agency of Ethiopia, and the Geophysical Institute and Center for International Health at the University of Bergen. The project is funded by the Norwegian Programme for Development, Research and Education (NUFU) and the University of Bergen.