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SD scientists help Ethiopia fight killer malaria

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News Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
The Daily Republic
SD scientists help Ethiopia fight killer malaria
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Dealing with malaria is a fact of life for more than 91 million Ethiopians. Each year, 4 million to 5 million contract malaria, one of the biggest health problems in this poor country.

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"I was sick twice a year," said Woubet Alemu, a South Dakota State University doctoral student and a native of Ethiopia. The mosquito-transmitted illness causes headache, chills and vomiting.

Alemu's stepmother got malaria after childbirth. By the time the family took her to the hospital 18 miles away, it was too late. She died within a week.

The incidence of malaria was high when he was a child, then it drastically decreased, but within the last few years, it has become more prevalent, Alemu explained.

Despite improvements in the health care system, transportation and poverty make combating the seasonal disease challenging, according to Michael Wimberly, senior scientist at the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence.

Through a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, he and a team of South Dakota scientists will combine environmental data gathered through earth-imaging satellites and surveillance data from public health professionals in the Amhara region of Ethiopia to anticipate malaria outbreaks.

The Amhara region has more than 17 million people, 90 percent living in rural areas with most of those engaged in subsistence-level farming. Alemu, whose family has farmed in the Amhara region for generations, said the small grains they grow are used to feed the family. "We don't have enough cash crops," Alemu said.

Consequently, they are unable to pay for medicine.

"This region has one of highest malaria burdens in the country," said Wimberly, who has worked on early warning systems for West Nile Virus and malaria.

Other team members are senior scientist Geoffrey Henebry, SDSU computer scientist Yi Liu and Gabriel Senay, a research physical scientist at U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, commonly known as EROS. Senay is also a native of Ethiopia.

Only one genus of mosquito, Anopheles, carries the malarial parasite Plasmodium, Wimberly explained. He and his team examine factors, such as temperature and rainfall, which influence the mosquito population.

Peak times for malaria transmission coincide with the planting season -- April through June, and harvest -- September through December, according to Alemu.

"It's a rural disease," Wimberly said.

Ethiopia has a monsoon climate so mosquitoes "are knocked down in the dry season and then have to build up their populations again" when the rains come, Wimberly noted. His team has found that what happens in the beginning of the rainy season provides some long-term indicators of transmission potential in terms of mosquitoes.

However, he cautioned, "climate is not the only driver, so we can't always get very precise predictions." If the malaria parasite is not present, high mosquito numbers alone will not result in an epidemic, but it's something that must be monitored.

When infected workers travel from the lowland area to the highlands, he noted, "that can be the ignition to start the fire."