Space Technology: A New Frontier for Public Health: Satellite Technologies Are a Natural Ally in Public Health Emergencies for Tracking the Extent of Disease Outbreaks and Natural Disasters. Jeremy Wagstaff Explains Why They Have Only Become Really Useful over the Past 10 Years

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When former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was seen leaving a conference in Geneva in November 2005 clutching maps of the south Asia earthquake disaster, it was evidence that satellites--as a key weapon in humanitarian emergencies--had arrived.

In the hours and days after the October 8 quake struck killing more than 73 000 people and injuring some 150 000, experts from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United Nations scrambled to gather and interpret images data from satellites to assist rescue workers on the ground from local authorities to nongovernmental organizations (NGO), like Telecoms Sans Frontieres.

The maps (which can be seen at http://www.disasterscharter.orgl disasters/CALLID_110_e.html) compare the terrain before and after the disaster, and pinpoint the location and impact of landslides. Such photos, says Maarten Meerman, a satellite designer at MacDonald Dettwiler in Vancouver, Canada, would be detailed enough "to spot flooded roads, burning forests, washed out railways, etc."

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These relief crews and aid workers--with their boots knee-deep in mud and their laptops under plastic bags for protection from the rain--got the damage maps and reported that the information was useful," recalls Philippe Bally, an earth observation specialist from the European Space Agency (ESA) and a member of the secretariat of the International Charter "Space and Major Disasters", a seven-year-old commitment by 10 space agencies to provide satellite-based data to countries affected by disaster.

This vote of confidence, he concluded, was "a clear message when it comes from the end user". But it was the sight of Annan emerging with maps of the disaster that struck home for Bally, who through the Charter helped coordinate obtaining the images and their interpretation by experts from an ESA project called GMES RESPOND. "Those maps," says Bally, "were the results of a huge effort from the Charter alongside value-adding partners working on satellite data to extract thematic information."

Great advances have been made in space technology in the past decade, and these advances have become useful for addressing humanitarian crises. The chief of these, as the Pakistan earthquake illustrates, is using satellites to obtain images of a disaster zone quickly, so that rescue workers can focus their efforts where they are needed. But there are other uses of satellites: as a way to predict and monitor the spread of communicable diseases; as a simple means of communication when land-based systems have failed; and as location and navigation aids when Global Positioning System--GPS--units locate and track public health information. In the outbreak of Rift Valley fever in Kenya (2006-2007), for example, GPS units were used to link surveys to an actual place on the earth, according to Carl Kinkade, enterprise Geographic Information System (GIS) coordinator for the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

ESA is collaborating with the World Health Organization (WHO) to establish a European user-driven Telemedicine via Satellite programme. Telemedicine is the use of information technology to deliver medical services or information from one location to another. The programme will aim to provide telemedicine services, such as delivering medical care and treatment via satellite, and, for WHO, a key element is training health workers in how to use such health technologies in their work. WHO has already trained health workers in how to use satellite images in 20 countries.

The Satellites For Epidemiology (SAFE) pilot project, for example, is part of that collaboration. According to SAFE coordinator Audrey Berthier, of the Institut de Medecine et de Physiologie Spatiales (MEDES) in Toulouse, France, the SAFE project attempts to answer the question: how good are satellites for providing early warning of disease outbreaks? To explore this, SAFE conducted a training exercise in November 2007 on the Greek island of Crete (http://www. …