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[MEXICO CITY] Researchers have used Google Earth to create a simple, inexpensive mapping tool to help fight vector-borne diseases like dengue in resource-poor countries.

The team, including researchers from Mexico and South Africa, recorded data about a city's infrastructure — such as the location of health facilities and water sources that may serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Using Google Earth, a free satellite imagery and mapping archive, they overlaid the data onto satellite images to visually display disease distribution in a way that will aid public health planning and disease management.

"We used [Google Earth] and combined it with epidemiological information, and data on the geographic location and physical infrastructure to do better studies of public health," says Maria Alba Loroño-Pino, of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, Mexico, one of the researchers on the study.

The researchers looked at two cities in southeast Mexico, Merida and Chetumal, tracking the spread of dengue virus. They displayed the location of dengue cases and areas at high risk of exposure to the virus, in relation to each city's infrastructure.

They point out how the software could easily display data on multiple diseases or public health initiatives over the same satellite map.

"We proved [the usefulness of the tool] for the management of vector-borne diseases [like dengue], but with the suitable information it's possible to apply it to other places and diseases, and even for the control and pursuit of vaccination campaigns," says Loroño-Pino.

The researchers say the Google Earth has several advantages, being low-cost and simple to use, with high quality satellite images available in urban areas — though they note that satellite image quality is poorer for rural areas.

The software can be operated on a desktop computer and requires only brief access to Internet to download the satellite images — an advantage for countries suffering from poor Internet access.

Furthermore, the researchers say, the tool can be combined with other free health mapping tools, such as the WHO's HealthMapper, and the data is easily interchangeable between different mapping software packages.

The research was published in the Bulletin of the WHO last month (September).

Link to full study in Bulletin of the WHO [693KB]