A new advancement in satellites could help detect a cholera outbreak up to four weeks in advance

By Saumya Tawakley

We’ve all experienced the unpleasant toll sickness takes on us, whether in the form of a common cold or something more severe, like the flu. Every year, certain seasons pass when diseases flourish more than other times of the year, spreading like wildfire and infecting person after person until hospitals begin facing difficulties managing the great influx of patients. One major disease outbreak is that of cholera, which infects thousands of patients annually by spreading through urban areas, camps, and unhygienic areas. However, a new technological advancement in satellites could bring an end this annual cycle.

What Is Cholera?

According to the CDC, Cholera is a bacterial disease generally spread through water. This disease causes a widespread range of health defects, including dehydration and intestinal problems. 

There are two ways to spread cholera: endemically, such as through lake or river water in small, underdeveloped areas, or epidemically, such as in city environments where diseases are not expected to outbreak often. 

Because of the high speed at which cholera can spread, it is considered to be a very dangerous outbreak. The disease can infect thousands within hours, and with the influx of patients in hospital emergency rooms, it makes it difficult to treat patients right away. Due to this, cholera takes the lives of thousands annually. 

The Satellite Test

Antarpreet Jutla, civil engineer at West Virginia University and now head of the Yemen satellite project, became aware of the pressing concern cholera poses to civilizations.

“They [people] are not prepared—they don’t have vaccines, they don’t have dehydration solutions” Jutla said in an interview with Scientific American

Yemen serves as a perfect area where cholera can thrive, with civil unrest and political instability causing people to travel around often. More migration of people within a country makes it easier for the disease to spread, causing Yemen to be an ideal example of somewhere a massive cholera outbreak is likely.

Jutla and his team used satellites to monitor environmental conditions around Yemen for several months before the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in December, where they presented their findings and proposed their solution: using the satellite to monitor the spread of dangerous germs throughout the region. The data they collected came from precipitation levels, temperatures, water storage and land condition which indicated areas where cholera may be likely to develop.

Four weeks later, a cholera outbreak occurred in the areas Jutla and his team had predicted. The algorithms they had written seemed to have done the job right.

“It was something we did not expect,” Jutla proudly said to Scientific American, after receiving news that their advanced algorithms and code had predicted the outbreak accurately.

Next Steps

With their first successful prediction of an outbreak, Jutla and his team has a lot more confidence with building more advanced and efficient models of satellites. They hope that with enough organization, they will be able to spread their technology globally so each country can know of potential disease outbreaks up to four weeks in advance. Furthermore, they hope that with technology such as this emerging, there would be more time to develop necessary vaccinations and medical supplies for when the disease breaks.

Shivani Gupta is a sophomore whose grandmother recently experienced pneumonia due to highly contagious germs in the area. Gupta is optimistic that this new kind of technology could have a great impact on people and could prevent illnesses such as the one her grandmother contracted.

“If these satellites could make even the smallest impact like it did for Yemen, I think it’s definitely something [countries] should invest in,” Gupta said. “Knowing that you could have had a disease, and then not having it because you had time to prevent it, literally opens your eyes to so many things.”

For Gupta, introducing the satellites to track germs and inform people of diseases ahead of time is crucial to ensure cases such as her grandmother’s can be prevented. In this era of rapidly improving technology, taking this step might not be too far off. 

The general structure of a satellite consists of the transponder, antennae, solar batteries, a camera, and several sensors. Satellites can be used for a variety of purposes, including monitoring environmental conditions for notable changes. (Wikimedia Commons/NASA)

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