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  • Climate model gives early warning of malaria outbreaks

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[KISUMU]  The war on malaria in East Africa has been stepped up with the launch of a computer model that predicts disease outbreaks in the region 90 days in advance.

The model combines data on environmental factors, such as weather predictions and geography, with information on the mating mechanisms of mosquitoes, and has been tested in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda over the last nine years.

It was officially launched in Kisumu, Kenya, earlier this month (3 September) alongside the 26th Climate Outlook Forum for the Greater Horn of Africa.

Andrew Githeko, head of the climate and human health unit at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), which developed the model with the Kenya Meteorological Department and the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, said it can alert officials of impending outbreaks two to three months ahead.

With that warning, governments will be able to take steps such as deploying treated bed nets, he said.

"We are now moving from epidemic detection and management to early epidemic prediction and prevention," Githeko said. The model has predicted epidemics with an accuracy of at least 75 per cent, he added.

Work on the model began in 2000 with a grant from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Further funding was provided by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development and Canada's International Development Research Institute to fine tune it at several sites, and train end users and country experts.

All of the region's meteorological services departments and national malaria control programmes have been given access to the model and are planning to adopt it.

Speaking at the launch, KEMRI director, Solomon Mpoke, said that epidemics were unpredictable in the past, resulting in late or no response to an outbreak.

"The tool has been automated to make it user friendly for health and meteorological experts from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya," he said.

The National Malaria Strategy (2009–2017), launched by Kenya's Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, identifies epidemic preparedness and response as a key approach to the containment of epidemics in Kenya.

The WHO's Roll Back Malaria initiative notes that forecasting and early warning can reinforce local preparedness and allow authorities and communities to use cost-effective and timely control options to prevent excessive deaths.

Elizabeth Juma, head of the malaria control programme at Kenya's Ministry of Health, said that the model will help in reducing malaria deaths. "The collaborative effort with the metrological department is timely and will be vital in fighting malaria, and we hope that it will be rolled out in areas that are affected," she said.

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