Devices & Technology

NASA and CDC team up to predict infectious diseases

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By Suzi Birz, principal, HiQ Analytics, LLC

NASA's Earth Science Enterprise is dedicated to understanding the Earth as an integrated system and applying Earth System Science to improve prediction of climate, weather, and natural hazards using the unique vantage point of space. Public health is one of 12 national priorities for the application of this technology. NASA selected public health due to the health effects from climate, including heat related illnesses and deaths, health effects from air pollution, water and food borne diseases, as well as vector and rodent borne diseases.

NASA’s satellite project was outlined recently in Philadelphia during the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene's annual meeting.

How Diseases Spread

Infectious diseases spread through contact, air and through vehicles and vectors. Infectious diseases can spread by means of contact from person to person, from animal to person and from mother to unborn child. Air transmissions can be droplets (e.g., created from coughing and sneezing) or smaller particles. Diseases can spread through food, an example of vehicle transmission (e.g, E. coli contamination is common).

Vectors which are insect carriers (mosquitoes, fleas, lice or ticks) spread the germ (for instance, West Nile) when they land on and/or bite humans or other animals. Insects that are transporting these diseases are influenced by environmental conditions such as rainfall and temperature.

Diseases and Satellite Data

NASA uses 14 satellites to capture images that allow scientists to map the Earth’s environment. This information can be then translated and used to help public health officials anticipate the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases.

For example flood areas are good breeding grounds for mosquitoes. NASA is able to use this knowledge when reviewing satellite data. NASA reported, “By closely monitoring the vegetation in the region affected by increased rainfall, scientists can identify the actual areas affected by outbreaks of Rift Valley Fever, a mosquito-borne disease that can be fatal to humans and animals. Scientists use satellite images to show regions of Africa that are greener (and wetter) than normal or more brown (and drier) than normal.”

To achieve the full potential, NASA partnered with agencies that have decision support systems that can analyze the satellite data.

“The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains systems for public health that provide vital information on these conditions and allow for the prediction of disease outbreaks. NASA's goal is to help determine how weather, climate, and other key environmental factors correlate with the occurrence of chronic and infectious diseases. Once verified, validated and benchmarked, these relationships can be assimilated into surveillance systems such as the Environmental Public Health Tracking Network to track and predict disease. Other partners, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are also part of this effort.”

NASA has programs in place for several major diseases, including Malaria (Malaria Modeling and Surveillance Project), West Nile Virus and Bubonic Plague.

Since the Plague is considered a bioterrorism agent, surveillance systems are designed to enable scientists to determine if an outbreak is natural or man-made bioterrorism.

At the Conference in Philadelphia, John Haynes, public health program manager for the NASA Earth Science Applied Sciences Program explained, “NASA satellite remote sensing technology has been an important tool in the last few years to not only provide scientists with the data needed to respond to epidemic threats quickly, but to also help predict the future of infectious diseases in areas where diseases were never a main concern."

The satellites will continue to be a cost-effective tool since they are already in orbit and collective data about the Earth’s atmosphere. We can expect climate changes to have an ongoing impact on disease transmission. "Changing environments due to global warming have the ability to change environmental habitats so drastically that diseases such as malaria may become common in areas that have never been previously at-risk,” said Haynes at the Conference.


NASA has identified that these partnerships will bring value and achieves the following benefits:

  • Early warnings of harmful exposures, conditions favorable to vector proliferation.

  • Improved prevention initiative targeting.

  • Reduction of environmental-related diseases.

  • Improvement in bio-terrorism event information management.

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