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Malaria study goes to the desert


Scientists studying malaria-carrying mosquitoes and the effects of the disease on people are about to undertake a unique experiment in West Africa.

The researchers plan to examine the factors in climate variation that can affect disease epidemics. They have built an indoor experimental lab in the guise of a specially constructed traditional African thatched hut, to replicate conditions that many people live in. Located in the Sahel region of Niger, the hut is equipped with instruments to study the temperature, humidity, soil conditions and other factors that affect the behaviour of the mosquitoes.

The project team involves scientists from the Universities of Leeds and Liverpool, and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Funding has been provided by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

Dr Andy Morse from the University of Liverpool, who is leading the malaria project says: “Predicting the West African monsoon and its likely effects is more difficult than, for example, relating rainfall patterns to malaria in Southern Africa. By assessing local climate factors that lead to increased disease risk, and looking at long range meteorological forecasts for the region from global models, we can contribute to the eventual creation of a malaria model that predicts likely epidemics - ultimately becoming a component within a disease early warning system.”

The project will help to assess the variations between seasonal malaria and its effects on people – some with natural immunity in malarial regions and others who will have no immunity to the disease due to its infrequent occurrence where they live. In these regions variations in climate could make malaria epidemics more common.

This research forms part of an EU funded project - the African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analysis (AMMA) and aims to show how the climate can affect the transmission patterns of malaria. The malaria transmission data is provided through collaboration with CERMES - a Niger based medical research centre.

Malaria is a major health and economic issue in Africa – it is a bigger killer than AIDS and more Africans die on a daily basis from malaria than any other cause, according to the World Health Foundation. Malaria kills over 1 million people each year with the majority of these being children; Child mortality rates are currently at around 30%.

By comparing information from ground based instruments and from the NERC/Met Office BAe 146 aircraft - which will make measurements in the skies above West Africa - improvements in scientific understanding will contribute to the building of a predictive model of the malaria risks for the region. Satellite images will also help the researchers to identify where the wet and humid areas, which encourage mosquitoes, will occur after rainfall.

Some of the scientists will leave for Niger next week (week commencing 22 May) to prepare for the research programme, which will run until August 2006.

Marion O’Sullivan | alfa
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