A View from Brittany Sauser

The Most Detailed Global Maps of Malaria

Looking at the disease worldwide allows scientists to track efforts to fight it.

  • March 24, 2009

Scientists have created the most detailed global maps of malaria prevalence ever compiled. Their goal is to generate the maps annually so they can better fight the disease by tracking progress in malaria intervention efforts.

The maps depict the malaria risk of areas as low (light red) where the parasite rate is less than 5%, moderate (medium red) where it is 5-40%, and high risk (dark red), where the rate exceeds 40%. Credit: Atlas Project/NASA

For the Malaria Atlas Project, the scientists collected data from over 8,000 surveys and used them to develop maps for 2007. According to a Q&A in Nature News with Simon Hay, one of the scientists working on the project at the University of Oxford, UK, next year’s maps will be based on over 13,000 surveys. You can download maps for any country from their website, something that Hay said “has never been done before.”

The group spent two years compiling and modeling data across the entire globe down to a 5-by-5 kilometer resolution, which required about a month of computing time. This involved combining data from all the different surveys–information gathered at many different times and in different places.

Next years maps might not take so long. Hay says that Amazon will work with the group and has opened a free credit line of $12,000 dollars of computing time on their systems. “We intend to make it easy for scientists and policy-makers to see which areas are making progress and which are not,” said Hay, who was surprised by the low level of prevalence in countries like Kenya and Tanzania, and at the higher prevalence in west Africa.

From the Nature News article:

Look at the Americas. Almost all the 40 million people there at risk of malaria are living in areas where transmission is below 5%. So technically the obstacles to malaria elimination in the region are low. It’s not rocket science; it says that if you can roll out prevention measures, you know they will work, so it’s purely a question of resources and logistics, nothing else. We can say the same for vast swathes of Central and South East Asia, although there are pockets of higher transmission areas such as Myanmar and lowlands of Papua New Guinea which are going to require more effort. The maps should of course be valuable guides in those efforts.

Even in Africa, where you have some 660 million people at risk, some 100 million live in areas where the maps show prevalence of less than 5%, so again there are excellent prospects for eliminating malaria from these areas, such as the northern extent of the Sahara, and the Horn of Africa. Again it’s the logistical obstacles that will be the rate-limiting step.

The paper was published online today in the journal PLoS Medicine.

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