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NASA pioneers malaria-predicting tech in Myanmar

NASA is developing a new technique to forecast malaria outbreaks in Myanmar from space, as the emergence of new drug-resistant strains in Southeast Asia threatens efforts to wipe out the deadly disease globally.


The goal of worldwide malaria eradication within a generation, by 2050, is "bold but attainable", a report released this week in The Lancet argued.


Malaria cases and deaths plummeted by more than 90 percent in Myanmar between 2010 and 2017, World Health Organization (WHO) figures show, a success largely credited to better rural health services and wider use of treated bednets.


But the country still has a higher prevalence than its neighbours in the Mekong region.


Several drug-resistant strains are taking hold across Southeast Asia and it is feared these could migrate to Africa where more than 90 percent of cases globally occur.


To counter this threat, NASA is deploying "cutting edge" spatial technology to tackle malaria outbreaks before they happen, scientist Tatiana Loboda told AFP.


She is applying her expertise in geo-spatial and risk modelling—coupled with a background in predicting wildfire outbreaks in the US—to identify potential hotspots so medicines and health workers can be mobilised in advance.


"A lot of people use a little spatial modelling... but not to the same depth and capabilities as were doing here," said Loboda, a professor at Maryland University.


The satellites provide meteorological data, including land surface temperatures, atmospheric water content and information about land cover, including forest, shrubland, settlements or water.


These are then combined with socio-economic data gathered by teams of researchers carrying out in-depth surveys with sample populations in the field.