A UNIQUE experiment to predict weather conditions over Southern Africa could save thousands of lives, researchers at Liverpool University revealed this week.
A team from the university's geography department has joined forces with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to use high technology in a bid to slash the number of malaria deaths in the region.
According to the World Health Organisation, mortality due to the mosquito-borne disease is estimated at between 1.5 and 2.7 million deaths a year. The vast majority of these occur among young children in Africa.
Now Liverpool researchers are using satellite technology to predict where weather conditions and ground vegetation are most suited to malaria-mosquito breeding, so that the authorities on the ground can target their limited resources more effectively.
The three-person team, called MalSat, collaborates with the Mapping Malaria Risk in Africa project, run by the Medical Research Council of South Africa in Durban.
The Liverpool University team, funded partly by the Overseas Development Administration, is just one group working across the globe with MARA support.
The team is using European and United States weather satellites to get an accurate picture of ground temperatures across the southern African countries. The satellites, one of which scans the continent in five square kilometre sections every 30 minutes, also provide information on the volume of vegetation and on the temperature at the top of clouds over the region.
According to Mark Cresswell, the research assistant involved in the project, the temperature of the clouds can be used to give an accurate picture of the amount of rain they produce.
At the moment, he said, the cloud temperature readings can be used only to provide an accurate estimate of the amount of rain over the past ten days. It is hoped that soon scientists will be able to use the temperature readings for prediction.
Mr Cresswell said: "Malaria parasites are transmitted to people by mosquitoes which thrive in certain weather conditions. A particular mix of warmer, humid weather supports them and we have been able to predict where they will occur in great numbers. If we can tell countries the likelihood of an epidemic in particular regions, they can target the resources they have more effectively. At present countries sometimes spray water bodies to kill the mosquito larvae. But sometimes they are wasting their money and using harmful chemicals in the wrong places. Hopefully we can say where they are best to target their resources."