Volume 11 | Issue 2 | Year 2008

A group of atmospheric research scientists at NASA’s National Space Science and Technology Center felt a little like they were in a foreign country when they first met with University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health representatives to discuss an unusual partnership.
“When we first got together, it was as if we were speaking entirely different languages,” says NASA’s Dale Quattrochi. But very soon both parties began to realize how NASA satellite data could translate into vital public health information.

“We started seeing how it was really a great fit. It was wonderful. The lights clicked on,” Quattrochi said.

In the past 50 years, satellites have revolutionized weather forecasting and communications, so why not human health?

The scientists from UAB and NASA realized that rocket science could be focused down to the level of microbiology and public health and yield huge advances in both. That “ah-ha” moment sparked idea after idea about ways to combat public health problems with satellite data.

Explains Quattrochi, “A number of us here saw the data as useful in integrating with public health issues. We were doing work in air quality and realized it could be a good fit in public health work, as far as identifying air pollutants and alerting people about a public health problem.”

The NASA team first explored possibilities with staff at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta in 2003. Quattrochi recalls their initial reaction: “They said, why do we need NASA data?” One person at the CDC, however, saw the potential virtue in using NASA data and technology. The two sides took turns giving tutorials on their respective disciplines. Then, the scientists initiated a study in Atlanta tagged HELIX (Health and Environment Linked for Information Exchange) which entailed working on particulate matter of 2.5 microns or smaller to identify the causes of respiratory diseases. Following this the NASA team started hunting for a project closer to their home base.

One of their best ideas was to teach public health students, the researchers and medical
personnel of the future, to harness the power of satellite imagery to study and fight modern-day disease. This idea led UAB to create a remote sensing lab – in fact the first
U.S. dedicated remote sensing lab for medical and public health use – to do just that.

Students at the lab take “cross-training” courses with NASA/NSSTC scientists such as Dr. Quattrochi, Dr. Jeff Luvall, Dr. Douglas Rickman, Dr. Mohammad Al-Hamdan, Dr. William Crosson, and Maurice Estes as guest lecturers and invited experts. Many of the NASA/NSSTC scientists have been appointed as adjunct professors at the UAB School of Public Health. And the innovative research performed from the lab is cutting edge.

Studies sponsored by the lab have already led to critical research in fighting malaria. Infrared imagery from satellites is helping scientists locate warm standing water – fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. Then the problem areas can be treated effectively and precisely, stopping the spread of malaria. Other researchers at the lab are using satellite imagery to correlate cases of West Nile virus with nearness to tire dumps, another favorite breeding ground for the virus-carrying mosquito.

Remote sensing has even proven valuable in tracking environmental influences on childhood asthma. Satellite data are revealing pollution levels and other environmental factors where the children live to find out whether these factors might be triggering asthma attacks. Children can then be given asthma therapy to protect them from the effects.

Another study is seeking links between the environment and cardiovascular diseases, including stroke. Using infrared sensing, a sensor that can measure heat coming off the surface, researchers can gauge heat indexes in cities and can also study a potential relationship between heat and humidity and cardiovascular ailments. Remote sensing
can also be used to identify environmental risk factors associated with cancer.

“Both UAB and NASA want to understand, using NASA satellite data on air quality, heat indexes, temperature, humidity, and other environmental elements, how the environment is influencing diseases and conditions,” explains Quattrochi. “This study’s findings could help health officials with environmental exposure and health recommendations.”

As scientists, he adds, “we’re interested in how science can be used to help people.” Just imagine how thrilled a designer of one of the first satellites from 50 years ago would be to learn that satellites in space are now combating health problems and saving lives.

That’s good news in any language.

For more information visit www.nasa.gov.

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