Nairobi — Scientists are using weather-based surveillance to predict impending meningitis outbreaks in Sub-Saharan Africa, making weather forecasts a possible tool to help health services combat the disease.
Meningitis affects more than five million people globally each year, with one in ten dying and two in ten left with an impairment such as brain injury or amputation, according to Meningitis Research Foundation.
The early-warning system being piloted across Africa uses weather data to give up to two weeks' advanced warning of conditions that are likely to trigger a meningitis outbreak, project leaders say.
The technology is being tested by the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development (ACMAD) in Niger, and the African SWIFT initiative led by the University of Leeds and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, both based in the UK.
"Meningitis is affecting more than 30,000 people over Africa each year with several thousand deaths," says Cheikh Dione, research scientist at ACMAD and a member of the African SWIFT project. "Our key findings are to operationalise the production of an early-warning system on meningitis outbreaks over the African meningitis belt."
The project, run jointly with the World Health Organization's regional office for Africa, is helping health staff understand how climate change is linked to meningitis outbreaks, according to Dione.
It also enables climate scientists to evaluate their forecasts and understand the response of health services to stop meningitis outbreaks.
"This collaboration between climate scientists and health services is allowing [us] to save lives," he explains, adding that the lead time allows health services to better plan in locations with limited resources and enables country-level health services to be aware of potential outbreaks.
Scientists involved in the project say that during the dry season, which occurs from January to June, episodic dust outbreaks develop over the Sahel and Sahara and are linked to meningitis epidemics.
Forecasts are being generated in the African meningitis belt, which covers 26 African countries including Senegal in West Africa and Ethiopia in East Africa, Dione explains.
Scientists are using forecast data from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts made available by the World Meteorological Organization.
"Based on weekly mean forecast of temperature, wind, relative humidity and surface dust concentrations, we are able to map areas where meningitis cases or outbreaks are expected to occur in the coming two weeks," he says.
The forecast is generated every Monday and sent to the WHO's regional office for Africa, which then shares the bulletin with the weekly reported meningitis cases to the health services in each country in the meningitis belt.
"Every two weeks, we have a meeting to discuss the forecasts, present the meningitis reported cases and make some recommendations based on the observed meningitis cases and the forecasts," Dione says.
Justin Bienvenu Eyong, an epidemiologist with Epicentre Africa, a research arm of Doctors Without Borders, tells SciDev.Net that monitoring climatic factors in regions at high risk can effectively predict meningitis outbreaks.
Eyong, says: "Being able to predict an epidemic outbreak implies that we have the possibility of better anticipating the response [that includes] vaccination, strengthening of diagnostic and management capacities."
In the context of global warming, considering the relationship between climate and meningitis can help anticipate any future additional burden to already fragile health systems on the continent, Eyong explains.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.