Scientists have revealed a new meningitis forecasting project, which aims to use weather forecasts to predict the location and scale of impending meningitis outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa.
The project is part of an early-warning system being piloted with the aim of giving health agencies more time to activate emergency response plans.
Pioneered by the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development (ACMAD), and the African SWIFT initiative led by the University of Leeds and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, the project uses weather data to give up to two weeks’ advanced warning of conditions “less likely” or “highly likely” to trigger a meningitis outbreak. The forecasts also warn if an outbreak is likely to become an epidemic.
Incidence of the Meningitis disease rises dramatically in hot, dry and dusty weather. Dust particles can irritate people’s airways and allow airborne microorganisms to get into the body and cause a meningitis infection.
The pilot project is currently evaluating how well the forecasts predict weather conditions, the link between weather conditions and meningitis cases, and the methods of communication between climate scientists and health organizations. The project has been financed by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, which targets research at the big challenges facing the world’s poorer countries.
Professor Doug Parker, lead scientist at African SWIFT, said, “Researchers have known about the link between weather conditions and meningitis for decades. But with advances in weather modelling, we can now forecast with a high degree of accuracy one or two weeks ahead whether those conditions will develop, and that is giving health agencies a window in which to try and target their resources to the right place.
“We are in the middle of the African meningitis ‘season’ and so can assess how effective the specialized weather forecasts are in helping to better coordinate health action on the ground,” he added.
The early-warning system is possible because of medium-range weather forecasting data produced by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, made available to African SWIFT through the WMO’s Sub-seasonal to Seasonal Prediction Real-time Pilot Project, to improve predictions of weather two to eight weeks ahead.
Dr Cheikh Dione, who is leading the meningitis forecasting project at ACMAD, concluded, “By analyzing factors such as humidity, air quality, temperature and wind speed, we can map those areas where conditions will be ideal for an outbreak to occur. By getting information out to governments and health teams in advance, we give them a window to get ahead of the disease – and to be more effective in their response.”