ANNAPOLIS – The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is usually preoccupied with tracking space shuttles and satellites, but soon the lowly mosquito will be on its radar.
The mosquito, a carrier of the West Nile virus, has been spreading the microbe across the country at alarming rates, and NASA is trying to use its innovative technology and satellites to predict where the next outbreak will occur.
NASA’s Web site outlines the program and satellite maps that will show land surface temperatures nationwide, vegetation, bird migration patterns and reported cases of birds infected with the virus.
Last year, NASA, Oxford University and New York state began using the virus tracking system to create climate maps based on data from satellites, according to the New York State Department of Health.
These maps revealed areas that are most likely to provide the ideal climate for the virus to flourish, and they tracked areas where the virus already has spread.
“The goal of the program is to extend the benefits of NASA’s investments in Earth system science, technology and data toward public-health decision- making and practice,” said Robert Venezia, program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., in a written statement.
NASA centers, including the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, will help collect the data.
West Nile travels with infected birds. Mosquitoes feed on the birds and pass the virus to their larvae, humans and animals, continuing the cycle. The disease can cause flu-like symptoms and can lead to encephalitis, or sometimes-fatal brain swelling. West Nile’s rapid spread this year, NASA said, has been attributed to an abnormally warm winter in 1998 to 1999, which allowed mosquito larvae to survive and spread almost nationwide. In early 1999, only three states reported cases of West Nile virus, today 35 states have confirmed cases of the virus, with Illinois contributing the highest number of human cases, 654, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The last five winters have flip-flopped between cool and warm with last winter being the second warmest on record in Maryland according to the National Climate Data Center. “Once we have one or two killing frosts and the temperatures start going down, the mosquito population will be eliminated,” said J.B. Hanson, spokesman for the secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“It’s endemic in this country. It’s here to stay. We have to learn how to deal with it,” he said.
DHMH uses an arbovirus surveillance system established by the CDC, which tracks the virus in birds, horses, humans, and mosquitoes. This information is also given to NASA to assist in its tracking efforts. As of Friday, 16 humans, 46 mosquito pools, 570 birds and 8 horses have tested positive for the virus have been reported in Maryland. Three human deaths have been linked to the virus but only one has been confirmed. – 30 – CNS-10-11-02