Using technology to predict cholera outbreaks

Community members being led by Alick Austine to identify features that can fuel the spread of cholera on maps produced from drone photographs UNICEF/Malawi/2017/ S Muthukrishnan

By Alick Chisale Austin

Developing countries like Malawi face a lot of challenges. Some of these challenges like sickness prevent people from actively participating in developmental activities and when left unchecked they lead to loss of lives.

Such challenges are like the recent cholera outbreaks that have hit Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia which have resulted in a number of deaths. In Malawi, the infections and deaths were controlled because of the timely response by different players including government departments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations like UNICEF.

Apart from the traditional response activities like sensitisation of communities on prevention and treatment of cholera and provision of safe water, UNICEF employed the use of drone in cholera response activities. The drones were used to take arial imagery of places most likely to be affected by cholera, the images were then printed out on big maps that were used to inform action plans to scale down its spread and impact.

Drones captures aerial photographs of all features on the ground. These aerial photographs are stitched together and maps are produced from such photographs. Bearing in mind that cholera is transmitted through oral faecal ingestion, maps produced from the drone flights highlight hygiene and sanitation features that fuel the spread of the outbreak of cholera. Such features include public water points (Wells, Kiosks and Boreholes), pit ratlines, damp sites, possible areas of open defecation and food sourcing points such as restaurants, fast foods places and butcheries. The maps are then given to communities to analyse and draw action plans to address any issues that may lead to the spread of cholera.

This approach gives UNICEF a chance to predict or tell the likelihood occurrence of a cholera outbreak and the estimated population likely to be affected. Having such information in advance allows concerned communities, government departments and organisations to plan and prevent the occurrence of cholera outbreaks or plan for activities to reduce the impact in areas where an outbreak has already occurred.

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