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[NAIROBI] Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will begin using the latest technologies to map and collect data on the distribution of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) later this year.

Officers running national NTD control programmes will be trained to use the latest mapping tools — including geographic information systems (GIS), geographic positioning systems (GPS) and smart phones to create maps and collect data, to help with 'practical  control' of diseases that continue to afflict millions of people on the continent.

Despite being some of the easiest diseases to treat, NTDs continued to ravage populations across Africa.

"National control programme officers will be trained in using the latest tools to locate these diseases, and collect and analyse data for cost effective control of NTDs," explains Simon Brooker, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom.

This is the first time African government programmes will deploy such technologies for NTDs surveillance. 

"Correct and reliable data on NTDs is not available in many African countries and the only people who have used satellite technology are foreign researchers and some NGOs, who may not necessarily share their results with national governments," says Brooker.

The five most common NTDs on the continent will be targeted: intestinal worms, trachoma, elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis), river blindness and bilharzia.

Training for control officers from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zambia began last month (13-17 May) at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in Nairobi, after which the officers will start mapping the NTDs in their respective countries.

"The significance of using these technologies in mapping NTDs is to establish distributions, target treatment in need areas, estimate drug and resource requirements in affected populations and obtain clear information for monitoring and control purposes," says Sammy Njenga, director of the Eastern and Southern Africa Centre of International Parasite Control (ESASIPC).  

"NTDs are 'focal' in their distribution, meaning that even in localities where they are found they usually occur in pockets — thus the importance of using the technologies in establishing their distribution," says Njenga.

Erick Khamala, a remote sensing specialist at Nairobi's Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development, says using satellite technologies to map diseases is the most effective way of capturing their distribution so as to target interventions.

"Data collection can be done by a few people and the software required can be downloaded free from the internet," he says.

In Kenya, some four million people live under threat of intestinal worms, six million people are at risk of bilharzia, and about 3.2 million are at risk of elephantiasis. All these diseases can be controlled with drugs, but only where good data and resources are available.

The initiative is a collaboration between the Centre for Neglected Tropical Diseases at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK, and KEMRI based ESASIPC, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk

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