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 Sunday, 5 May, 2002, 00:39 GMT 01:39 UK
Africa gets malaria early warning system
African women
The scheme is operating in Kenya and Uganda
Experts from the UK are helping African countries to develop the world's first early warning system to prevent malaria epidemics.

Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Oxford University have developed the scheme together with health chiefs in Kenya and Uganda.

The scheme is aimed at giving officials enough time to take preventative measures to stop a mass outbreak of the disease.

The mortality rate can be very high in these areas when epidemics occur

Tarekegn Abeku
Malaria kills over a million people a year. More than 90% of cases are reported in sub-Saharan Africa where it is the main cause of death and a major threat to children.

The disease is particularly threatening to people living in areas where outbreaks are not common, which means they do not have immunity to fight infection.

High death rates

Tarekegn Abeku, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said death rates in these areas can often be high.

Speaking on the BBC World Service programme Health Matters, he said: "Most people don't have immunity to malaria, so all the adult population and the children are affected. So the mortality rate can be very high in these areas when epidemics occur."

Mr Abeku said the early warning system aimed to identify changes in weather patterns that could lead to malaria spreading beyond its natural perimeters.

"Mainly, these epidemics are related to changes in weather conditions so we are also trying to set up data collection systems to collect material - meteorological data - that we can link with this morbidity data.

"We will use this information to develop a system that can be used for forecasting the average weather conditions and to use that to predict the probability of occurrence of epidemics."

Tarekegn Abeku
Mr Abeku is involved in pilot schemes
But officials will also be using local health data, such as mortality rates, to identify possible outbreaks.

Mr Abeku said: "Obviously to predict weather several months in advance is a difficult job so we go step by step.

"If that fails then we can still strengthen the surveillance system, the monitoring system, so that we can detect as early as possible an epidemic to take preventive and control measures in time."

Under the scheme, health facilities report weekly death rates from malaria to district health management teams in key areas of Kenya and Uganda.

Those figures are then analysed and used in conjunction with weather data to determine the likelihood and possible location of major outbreaks of the disease.

This enables health officials to take early action to protect those people living in the at risk areas.

Mr Abeku said: "Most of the time, we treat the whole population in order to reduce the reservoir of the parasite within the population.

"If resources are low we can also undertake residual spraying with insecticides."

The scheme is currently operating in pilot areas. If successful, it could be extended across Kenya and Uganda and potentially to other countries in Africa.

This story is featured in the radio programme Health Matters on the BBC World Service.

Click here for listening times

See also:

15 Feb 02 | Health
30 Apr 02 | Health
26 Jul 99 | Medical notes
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