Via The Guardian: Sahel meningitis outbreaks linked to wind and dust levels, claim scientists. Excerpt:
In the "meningitis belt" of sub-Saharan Africa, which stretches across the Sahel from Senegal to Ethiopia, major epidemics of lethal meningitis are routine. A devastating 1996-97 outbreak killed about 25,000 people.
An effective new vaccine has driven a decrease in meningitis, but the standard procedure in the region has been to carry out vaccination drives and antibiotic treatment of the disease in districts already suffering outbreaks. In some cases, help arrives too late to make a significant impact, health officials say.
In the near future, though, scientists might be able to use climate factors such as wind and dust conditions to forecast these epidemics and develop earlier vaccination strategies to prevent or limit casualties.
New research carried out in Niger by the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society found that measured levels of wind and dust can be used to predict some of the annual variability in meningitis outbreaks, at both national and district levels.
"We've known that the disease is associated to climate and environmental issues for a long time, because it's very seasonal," said Carlos Pérez García-Pando, one of the report's lead authors.
The challenge, he said, was to figure out which climate factors were important in order to better equip public health decision-makers to act.
"The idea was to try to use models and observations from satellites and all kinds of data on potential (climate-related) parameters that might be affecting the disease, and try to use that information to provide advance warning," Pérez said.
What the group of researchers found was a particularly close correlation between wind and dust levels and meningitis outbreaks.
Madeleine Thomson, another researcher involved in the project, called the strength of the relationship astonishing.
"A lot of experts have known for a long time that environment is important, but not how important," she said.
The research on meningitis follows similar work with malaria, connecting climate factors to the mosquito-borne disease.