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September 4, 2018

How geospatial tools could help improve global health

By ITU News

How can information and communication technologies (ICTs) improve global public health efforts? ITU News caught up with Robert Bergquist, Editor in Chief of Geospatial Healththe official journal of the International Society of Geospatial Health, about how geospatial information could help save lives around the world.

What are geospatial tools and how can they be used in global health efforts?

The convergence of spectral physics, computer technology and advanced statistics has produced an array of advanced geospatial tools. Meanwhile, remote sensing from satellites, global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) are bundling demographic, geographic and environmental data together with statistical software and database management generating public health data related to geographic places. ArcGIS is a well-documented geospatial tool to organize, analyze and display this information.

‘The growing awareness of geographic significance, not only for health, but related issues such as food, water and urbanization, is increasingly important.’ – Robert Bergquist, Editor in Chief, Geospatial Health

Geospatial tools are of particular interest for epidemiological investigations of tropical, vector-borne infections, the distribution of which is restricted not only by environmental requirements, but also by the ambient temperature inside the vector as it controls the speed of maturation of the infecting parasite. These are the factors governing the geographical limits of endemic areas.

Epidemiologists study the putative distribution of various human and veterinary diseases by downloading satellite-generated values of meaningful bioclimatic variables (temperature, rainfall, humidity, etc.) for ecological modelling. Important in this connection is the set of 19 bioclimatic variables standardized by WorldClim.

What technologies or tools are key to these efforts?

In contrast to the geostationary satellites used for meteorological forecasting and communications, polar-orbiting satellites report a wide variety of environmental variables from every part of the globe.

This information, provided at resolutions of 250-500 m, is free and comes mainly from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Aqua or Terra satellites, which travel in sun-synchronous orbits in opposite direction while the Earth rotates below them. Each satellite returns to the same spot in 16 days, so the two satellites together produce a temporal resolution of just 8 days. Other satellites offer optical data at 30 cm resolution, but these images are costly.

What are the main benefits of using geospatial information for global health?

The geospatial approach deals with spatial relations in several dimensions and can therefore be applied to research in such different fields as epidemiology and urban planning (e.g., where to place hospitals, clinics, dialysis centres); even surgery (internal relation of organs, skeleton, blood vessels etc.).

The advantage of technological opportunities including location analytics through embedding positional components and GIS data to shared web-based platforms is obvious. The growing awareness of geographic significance, not only for health, but related issues such as food, water and urbanization, is increasingly important.

‘Geospatial approaches constitute an important part of the public health toolbox.’

Today’s epidemiologist is supported by computer logistics, which includes maps and satellite-generated environmental variables for the area to be visited. This can be downloaded into a laptop at home and later complemented with site data in the field. The plus here is that negative field findings are reduced as the computer can tell where to look based on geographical and climate data.

Vectors are in principle either infected with viral or parasitological agents. The former, e.g., Dengue, Chikungunya, Rift valley fever, West Nile fever, Zika and Yellow fever, each infecting millions of people, while parasitological infections, e.g., malaria, schistosomiasis (bilharzia) filariasis (elephantiasis), onchocerciasis (river blindness) and many other such diseases are mostly counted in 100s of millions.

There are no vaccines for any of the diseases mentioned, except for Yellow fever, and no other curative approach than natural recovery is available for the viral diseases, while many parasitic infections can be treated with chemotherapy.

What are the obstacles and how could they be overcome?

Geospatial approaches constitute an important part of the public health toolbox, but the interpretation of geospatial data are not easily translated into terms understood by decision-makers or the general public. This makes it difficult to imbed social and cultural practices within the technological framework making this more of a problems than the technology itself.

However, maps are more user-friendly than other forms of data presentation (e.g., by showing client distribution, clinic localization and other health-related outcomes), and this may help community-level organizations facilitate a better understanding at the community level. Indeed, neighborhood mapping is a powerful tool that could bring all concerned into the research process.

What would you like to see moving forward in using geospatial information to improve lives?

We would like to see growth of the general use of geospatial technology in the field of medicine by governments opening their GIS databases for public use. This  ‘geomedicine’ approach would lead to location becoming the pivotal, integral dimension contributing to health approaches and clinical diagnosis by better understanding of the links between patient health and contextual, environmental factors.

We would also like to see the improvement of pattern discovery and influencing factors, leading to better understanding of the effects of social and cultural norms on humans and their health needs leading to the establishment of ‘health geography’ as a new discipline.

Robert Bergquist is Editor in Chief of Geospatial Health, the official journal of the International Society of Geospatial Health.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.

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How geospatial tools could help improve global health

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