Every year nearly three-quarters of a million people die from mosquito-borne diseases, and with climate change the problem is getting worse. EU researchers are giving public health officials the tools they need to take rapid, targeted action.
Some of the deadliest animals have the smallest bites. It is undeniable that each year more than a billion people succumb to diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, Zika and yellow fever. Each year, these infections, carried and transmitted by blood-sucking mosquitoes, cause some 700,000 deaths worldwide. Malaria, which accounts for more than half of them, is tragically the deadliest for children under five.
Already endemic in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, there are early signs that these diseases are approaching home for Europeans. Global trade and travel provide pathways for mosquitoes to spread. Changing weather patterns, compounded by climate change, are creating the conditions for species once written into the history books to recover in Europe.
This threat is illustrated most visibly on the dashboard of the Early Warning System for Mosquito-borne Diseases (EYWA). Its charts for malaria, dengue, Zika, Chikungunya and West Nile virus all show a similar and worrying upward trajectory. Since 2008, malaria cases in Europe have increased by 62%, dengue, Zika and Chikungunya have increased by 700%, and West Nile virus cases have increased dramatically in 2018.
“The problem is really huge,” said Dr. Haris Kontoes, research director at the Institute of Astronomy, Astrophysics, Space Applications and Remote Sensing at the National Observatory in Athens and coordinator of the EYWA network. . “It has always been a big problem given that millions of people are affected worldwide, but in the last 10 years these diseases have increasingly spread in Europe, even in northern European countries. “, he explained.
Pointing to the recent extreme floods, which saw the number of mosquitoes increase by up to ten times in Germany, Kontoes thinks that our climate change is fueling this trend and that the problem is getting worse: “In the past, these diseases were mainly known in tropical areas, but the impact of climate change is altering ecosystems and the development of mosquito populations across Europe.
Get a head start
In response, Kontoes and his team at NOA’s EO BEYOND center, together with key partners Ecodevelopment, and the Atmospheric Physics Laboratory of the University of Patras, and colleagues from 13 other partner organizations from France, Germany , Greece and Italy and Serbia, developed the EYWA.
The system helps local authorities get a head start on a mosquito outbreak by providing vital early warning to take preventative action. It combines advanced modeling with Earth observation data from Copernicus satellites, as well as the latest health, entomological (the branch of zoology concerned with the study of insects), citizen and environmental insights.
EYWA was recently awarded the first European Innovation Council (EIC) Horizon Prize on Epidemic Early Warning, raising €5 million to expand further.
“Before EYWA, we didn’t know in great detail what specific areas were at high risk for pathogen transmission,” Kontoes said. “With EYWA, we have precise and more detailed knowledge of the colonies that mosquitoes are supposed to develop. Knowing this in advance, public health authorities can take early action to control the presence of mosquitoes.
These preventative measures include increased spraying in high-risk areas, but also targeted door-to-door campaigns to encourage residents to avoid leaving standing water in reservoirs where mosquitoes breed. The campaigns also involve mobilizing a scientific community to deploy mosquito traps.
“Knowing the population and level of virus-infected mosquitoes from the trap data, we can get a much clearer idea of the precise epidemiological and entomological threat,” Kontoes explained. In the nine European regions where EYWA has been operational over the past three years, there has been a massive reduction in mosquitoes by up to half. In the long term, this could significantly reduce the number of seriously ill people.
The team is also using mobile apps, such as Mosquito Vision and e-bite, to develop better interactions with citizens regarding current mosquito alert levels.
New perspectives of citizen science
Kontoes and its partners are not the only ones offering ambitious technological solutions to the growing threat of mosquitoes. A computational ecologist, Professor Frederic Bartumeus of the Higher Council for Scientific Research 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, events turned his attention to human-mosquito ecological interactions in 2013.
“There were a lot of tiger mosquitoes in the northeast of Spain and I wanted to help solve a problem affecting my area,” he said. His solution? A new mobile app that encourages citizens to play the role of scientists by taking photos of 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 social scientist John Palmer, has had hundreds of thousands of downloads. And it seems that asking users to take pictures of mosquitoes and record their bites is surprisingly popular: “People love it!” And over time, we build a picture of abundance and activity, which we can use to sort and identify species through machine learning,” he added.
Mosquito Alert is a key component of FARSEER: The Next Generation Early Warning System for Disease Vectors, one of the other EIC Horizon Award finalists. FARSEER merges the citizen science of Mosquito Alert with smart traps that automatically identify species and advanced modeling integrated into a spatial decision support system. This has already been demonstrated at the municipal level in Barcelona.
For public health officials, this system offers timely and targeted risk maps with a high degree of accuracy – up to 20 meters. For scientists, it is an open project that should accelerate the search for solutions. For citizens, it is a two-way process of public engagement that both builds on their ideas and helps build their awareness.
Coping with Dengue in Southeast Asia
The team behind the Dengue Forecasting Model by Satellite (D-MOSS), another EIC Horizon Award finalist, has the challenges posed by dengue fever in Southeast Asia firmly in sight.
“The main reason we are focusing on dengue fever is because it is the fastest spreading mosquito-borne disease in the world, the number of people living in areas at risk of dengue outbreaks has increased significantly due to environmental changes, and at the same time there is no specific treatment,” explained Dr Gina Tsarouchi of the research organization HR Wallingford, which leads the consortium.
D-MOSS triangulates satellite data with the latest local information from partners on the ground regarding dengue cases, primarily in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Its purpose is simple: to provide intelligence months in advance to help officials better target resources and control outbreaks.
“Traditionally, countries only intervene when dengue cases have reached a certain level. D-MOSS helps them take preventative measures that, in the long run, will help them save resources and save lives,” Tsarouchi said.
Thanks to strong relationships with local partners where it is operational, the D-MOSS team participated in the co-design of the tool so that it meets their specific needs. Part of this development has been the training of local officials, which has helped them better understand how to interpret and apply the probabilistic forecasts produced by D-MOSS.
“Of course, the tool can’t go any further,” Tsarouchi said. “It can, for example, give you a 60% probability of an epidemic in a province of Vietnam in three months. But it can’t tell you exactly what to do with that information. Separate conversations are taking place with Ministries of Health, with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO), to determine thresholds for preventive action.
So what is the future of these systems, and could there be an opportunity to work together?
EYWA is currently expanding its network – this year alone it has added two new non-European countries, Côte d’Ivoire and Thailand, to the system. It is now collaborating with the European Commission’s Joint Research Center to help authorities deal with future pandemic risks and set new European standards. It has also recently been included as a pilot project in the EU e-shape community – the flagship project to improve the application of EuroGeo spatial data.
For FARSEER, the team will continue to focus on developing its individual components and looking for expansion opportunities. “I’m very optimistic about the future,” Bartumeus said. “I think what we’re trying to do will be the standard for mosquito-borne disease control. These ideas of generating different data sources, networking data, and communities are here to stay.
As for D-MOSS, the team behind it will look to expand its reach into other parts of Asia – Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are all targets. . Tsarouchi is optimistic about its future and its potential impact: “We can make D-MOSS available to all countries that need it, and it can lead to a reduction in dengue cases. »
And as for the possibilities of collaboration between the three finalists? “It’s definitely possible to complement each other in the future,” Kontoes said. “We will look for common opportunities and try to see if there are possibilities to join forces.”
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally publishedin Skylinethe European magazine for research and innovation.