Satellites can predict cholera outbreaks

By measuring changes in the sea, such as chlorophyll, sea surface height, and sea surface temperatures, satellites can predict impending cholera outbreaks.

Rita Colwell was awarded the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize for her work on cholera. She is credited with discovering that cholera bacteria can reside in a dormant state in tidal estuaries and waters. The cholera was found to multiply when an increase in water temperature leads to a boom in zooplankton and phytoplankton, which the bacteria attach to, Scientific American reports.

Using modern technology, Colwell and others have been attempting to predict when the cholera bacteria will break out. Other scientists have corroborated the association with increased air and sea temperatures and cholera outbreaks that can precede an epidemic by around six weeks. This connection becomes an increasingly ominous association as climate change warms the planet and creates more frequent and heavier downpours.

Colwell told Scientific American that prediction is half the battle, as local health officials must spring into action. While vaccines exist, Colwell said that in underdeveloped countries with limited resources, even simple measures like straining water through a folded, inexpensive sari cloth can drastically cut the incidence of the disease.

Colwell, a former head of the National Science Federation and current professor at the University of Maryland and John Hopkins University’s Bloomburg School of Public Health, said that cholera fatalities are completely needless. The disease’s mortality is reduced to less than one percent of those treated with simple salt and sugar fluids. If a severely infected person cannot make it to medical care quickly, there is close to a 50 percent chance of death.