As published in The Telegraph on 20 March 2019
A British consortium funded by the UK Space Agency on Tuesday launched a pioneering dengue forecasting system in Vietnam, in the hope of curbing the spread of the deadly mosquito-borne disease that has afflicted the south east Asian nation for generations.
The “D-MOSS project” led by HR Wallingford, a British civil engineering and environmental hydraulics consultancy, uses a combination of satellite information, weather forecasting, and historical data on previous outbreaks to create an early warning system for potential dengue danger zones.
The combined information would allow communities and health authorities to prepare for and try to prevent a dengue outbreak several months in advance, Gina Tsarouchi, a senior engineer at HR Wallingford told The Telegraph. “It’s the first [of its kind] in the world,” she added.
Transmitted mainly by the aedes aegypti mosquito, dengue causes flu-like symptoms including high fever, rashes, joint pain and, in the worst cases, haemorrhaging and death.
The World Health Organization estimates that 50 to 100 million infections occur every year, including 500,000 haemorrhagic cases and 22,000 deaths, mostly among children.
Before 1970, only nine countries had experienced severe dengue epidemics, but today about 2.5 billion people, or 40 per cent of the world’s population, live in areas where there is a risk of dengue transmission.
Vietnam is one of at least 100 countries in Asia, the Pacific, the Americas, Africa and the Caribbean, where the disease is now endemic. Since 2000 it has experienced a rise of over 100 per cent in the number of dengue cases due to the failure to control the mosquito population.
In 2017, the country suffered a major outbreak that saw a 51 per cent increase in cases to 184,741, and 32 recorded deaths.
Ms Tsarouchi said that the early warning system would draw from a long history of satellite data covering the whole of Vietnam, forecasts that will predict the weather for the next six months, and from Earth Observation-based information that would include specifics on land mass and population density.
Important variables such as rainfall, temperature, humidity, will also be taken into account.
“The idea is that all of this data is coming together and we develop a digital dengue model based on the historic information to project what will happen in the future,” she said.
The project will be run out of Vietnam’s ministry of health, which already has a dengue operations room and field surveillance capabilities in its department of preventive medicine.
“At the moment the system is very much reactive so if they are able to have some information in advance about a possible outbreak then hopefully they can mobilise their forces and do early campaigns to raise awareness among the local population or do more targeted spraying,” she said.
Public awareness about possible local outbreaks would also encourage people to seek earlier hospital treatment, said Ms Tsarouchi.
Darren Lumbroso, a fellow engineer at HR Wallingford and the dengue project’s leader, added that timely intervention would allow residents in high risk areas to cover water storage areas to avoid mosquito breeding grounds.
He said the project had benefited from health expertise from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the UK Met office, and Oxford Quality Management which carries out monitoring and evaluation.
The consortium received more than £4 million from the UK Space Agency’s international partnership programme.
The WHO and United Nations Development Programme, as well as local scientific bodies have also jumped on board the unique effort to prevent dengue deaths.
Dao Khanh Tung, a UNDP programme analyst in biodiversity and environmental health, said the UN body would help the authorities to act on the new information and make “more timely decisions for prevention and treatment”.
He added: “Local people need to be aware of dengue outbreaks, of the harm that dengue can cause to their health, and aware of what they can do to prevent dengue fever – cleaning their houses, cleaning up [water] containers and the environment surrounding their households.”