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Observations from space help fight mosquitoes

Diseases carried and transmitted by blood-sucking mosquitoes are responsible for the death of an estimated 700,000 people globally (photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Nearly three-quarters of a million people die each year from mosquito-borne diseases, and with climate change, the problem is getting worse. EU scientists are giving health authorities the tools they need to take targeted action quickly.

Some of the deadliest animals have the tiniest bites. It is an undeniable fact that more than one billion people succumb to diseases such as malaria, dengue, Zika and yellow fever every year. Each year, these infections, carried and transmitted by blood-sucking mosquitoes, cause the death of nearly 700,000 people worldwide. Malaria, which is responsible for more than half of them, is unfortunately most deadly in children under the age of five.

Not only is it already endemic throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, but there are warning signs that these diseases are moving ever closer to Europe. Global trade and travel offer routes for the spread of mosquitoes. Changing weather patterns, compounded by climate change, are providing the conditions for some species already consigned to the history books to rebuild their populations in Europe.

Global swarming

This threat is best illustrated in the Mosquito-Borne Early Warning System (EYWA) dashboard. The graphs for malaria, dengue, zika, chikungunya and West Nile viruses all show a similar, alarming upward trajectory. Since 2008, malaria cases in Europe have increased by 62%, those of dengue, Zika and chikungunya have increased by a remarkable 700%, and cases of West Nile virus jumped dramatically in 2018.

“The problem is really big,” says Dr Harris Contoes, Director of Scientific Research at the Institute of Astronomy, Astrophysics, Space Applications and Remote Sensing at the National Observatory of Athens and coordinator of the EYWA network. “The problem has always been big, given that millions of people are affected worldwide, but in the last 10 years these diseases have been increasingly transmitted in Europe, even in northern European countries,” he explains.

Pointing to recent major floods that have seen the number of mosquitoes in Germany rise tenfold, Kontoes believes that the changing climate is fueling this trend, with the problem becoming more serious: “In the past, these diseases were mainly known in tropical areas , but climate change is altering ecosystems and the development of mosquito populations across Europe.”

Ahead of the curve

In response, Kontoes and his team at the EO BEYOND Center at the National Observatory of Athens, in collaboration with key partners, Ecodevelopment and the Atmospheric Physics Laboratory at the University of Patras, as well as colleagues from 13 other partner organizations from Germany, Greece, Italy , Serbia and France, developed the Early Warning System for Mosquito-Borne Diseases (EYWA).

The system helps local authorities gain a head start before mosquitoes lead to an epidemic, as early warning provides time to take preventive action. It combines advanced modeling with data from Earth observations from the Copernicus satellites, along with the latest statistics on health, entomology (the branch of zoology that deals with the study of insects), humans and the environment.

EYWA recently received the first European Innovation Council (EIC) Horizon Award for Early Warning of Epidemics, which brought them €5 million in funding for further development.

“Before EYWA, we didn’t know very well the specific regions at high risk of pathogen transmission,” Contoes says. “With EYWA, we have accurate and more detailed information about where mosquitoes are expected to breed. By knowing this early, health authorities can take measures to control mosquitoes early.”

Such preventive measures include intensive spraying in high-risk areas, but also targeted door-to-door campaigns to persuade people not to leave stagnant water in reservoirs where mosquitoes breed. Campaigns also include mobilizing scientific communities to set mosquito traps.

“Once we know from the trap data what the population and level of virus-infected mosquitoes are, we can have a much clearer idea of ​​exactly what the epidemiological and entomological threat is,” explains Contoes. In the nine European regions where EYWA has been active for the past three years, a significant reduction in mosquitoes has been found: almost half. In the long run, this could dramatically reduce the number of people who become seriously ill.

The team also uses mobile apps such as Mosquito Vision and e-bite to better engage with citizens when mosquito numbers are alarming.

New evidence from citizen science

Contoes and his partners aren’t the only ones spearheading ambitious technological solutions to address the growing mosquito threat. Computational ecology expert Professor Frédéric Bartumeus of the Higher Research Council of Catalonia, Spain, has devoted his entire career to the analysis of animal movement data. But, from baboons in the savannah to seabirds in the Pacific Ocean, events in 2013 changed his focus on human-mosquito ecological interactions.

“There were a lot of tiger mosquitoes in the north-east of Spain and I wanted to help tackle a problem affecting my region,” he says. His solution? A new mobile app encourages people to take on the role of scientists by photographing mosquitoes and recording their bites to supplement data and improve the accuracy of model predictions.

Fast forward seven years and Mosquito Alert, the app developed by Bartumeus and sociologist John Palmer, has hundreds of thousands of downloads. It seems the invitation to users to photograph mosquitoes and record their bites is surprisingly popular: “People love it! Over time, we build a picture of density and activity that we can use to sort and identify species using machine learning,” he added.

Mosquito Alert is a key part of FARSEER: the next generation early warning system for disease vectors, one of the other finalists for the ESI Horizon Award. FARSEER combines participatory citizen science through Mosquito Alert with smart traps that automatically identify species and advanced modeling integrated into a spatial decision support system. The system has already been demonstrated at the municipal level in Barcelona.

For health authorities, this system offers timely and targeted risk maps with a high degree of accuracy — up to 20 meters. For scientists, this is an open project that should speed up finding solutions. For citizens, it is a two-way process of public engagement that relies on their input and helps improve their awareness.

Coping with dengue in Southeast Asia

The team behind the Satellite-Based Dengue Prediction Model System (D-MOSS), another ECI Horizon Award finalist, tackled the challenges posed by dengue fever in Southeast Asia.

“The main reason to focus on dengue is the fact that globally it is the fastest growing mosquito-borne disease, the number of people living at risk of dengue outbreaks has increased significantly as a result of the change in climate, while a specific treatment is lacking,” explains Dr. Gina Tsarucci of the research organization HR Wallingford, which leads the consortium.

D-MOSS combines satellite data with the most up-to-date dengue case statistics from partners on the ground — mainly in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. The goal is simple — to provide information months in advance to help authorities better target resources and control outbreaks.

“Traditionally, countries take action only after dengue cases reach a certain level. D-MOSS helps them take preventive action, which in the long run will help them save resources and save lives,” says Tsarucci.

Thanks to good relationships with local partners, the D-MOSS team was able to develop the tool to meet their specific needs. Part of this development is the training of local officials to help them better understand how to interpret and apply the probabilistic forecasts generated by D-MOSS.

“Of course, the tool’s capabilities only go so far,” Tsarucci says. “It can, for example, give you a 60% probability of an outbreak within three months in a province of Vietnam. But it can’t tell you exactly what to do with that information.”With the help of the World Health Organization (WHO), separate talks are being held with ministries of health to determine threshold levels for preventive action.

Looking ahead

What is the future of these systems and can they work together?

EYWA is currently expanding its network — this year alone two new countries outside of Europe have been added to the system: Côte d’Ivoire and Thailand. It is already collaborating with the European Commission’s Joint Research Center to help authorities tackle future pandemic risk and set new standards for the EU. It has recently been integrated as a pilot project in the EU’s e-shape community – the leading project to improve the application of space data EuroGeo.

The FARSEER team will continue to focus on the development of its individual components and look for opportunities to expand. “I’m very optimistic about the future,” says Bartumeus. “I think what we’re trying to do will become the standard for controlling mosquito-borne diseases.” These ideas of generating data from different sources, data from networks and communities have a future.”

As for D-MOSS, the team behind the system will look to expand its reach to other parts of Asia — Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are on target. Tsaruchi is positive about the future and its potential impact: “We can make D-MOSS available to any country that needs it, and it can lead to a reduction in dengue cases.”

And is there a possibility of cooperation between the three finalists? “There’s certainly an opportunity to complement each other going forward,” Contoes says. “We will look for common opportunities and try to see if we can join forces.”

The research in this article was funded by the EU. It was originally published in Horizon, the EU’s research and innovation journal.

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