‘Global warming could push malaria into no-go areas’

Vinson Kurian Thiruvananthpuram | Updated on August 15, 2020

(left) Himanshu Goyal, India Business Leader, The Weather Company, (right) Sanjeev Gaikwad, India Country Director, Malaria No More

Malaria No More (MNM), an NGO, has tied up with IBM and its arm The Weather Company for the ‘Forecasting Healthy Futures’ initiative

Global warming/ climate change as well as seasonal weather are important from the viewpoint of rolling out a sustained and enduring fight against the vector-borne disease of malaria in the tropical regions, including India, says Dr Sanjeev Gaikwad, India Country Director of the NGO Malaria No More (MNM).

MNM India has recently entered into a tie-up with IBM and its subsidiary The Weather Company for the ‘Forecasting Healthy Futures’ initiative aimed at improving health outcomes and accelerating India’s progress against deadly mosquito-borne diseases. India has declared a national programme to eliminate malaria by the year 2030.

Planning on ground

“In fact, I could divide the role of weather tracking into several parts,” Gaikwad told BusinessLine. “Hyperlocal data from The Weather Company will help us plan our intervention on the ground in an effective manner. Seasonal change in weather too has a bearing on planning at the ground level, especially since we need to suitably plan our manpower deployment.”

Himanshu Goyal, India Business Leader, The Weather Company, an IBM Business, said that MNM India will leverage his company’s weather data to create effective malaria intervention strategies, and sees a lot of potential to support it by providing hyperlocal weather advisories from its ‘GRAF’ model now available in India for village-level targeting of MNM’s beneficiaries.

Weather data from IBM’s GRAF

GRAF stands for Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System and is an hourly-updating weather system that claims to predict something as small as a thunderstorm virtually anywhere on the planet. Compared to existing models, it provides a nearly 200 per cent improvement in forecasting resolution for much of the globe (from 12 sq km resolution to 3 sq km).

Gaikwad said that for MNM, manpower planning is important since the frontline in rural areas is manned mainly by ASHA workers, mostly women, drawn locally where malaria may not be the only thing that they fight against. “Take, for instance, Covid-19 or even maternal health and child care. So, seasonal weather information will help us with a handle to deal with the issues.”

Seasonal ailment peaks

It is well-established that malaria peaks during the monsoon, and dengue, around December or January. This apart, the long-term changes in weather and climate are also important because areas that up till now have not been considered as malaria-prone could become potentially a breeding ground for the disease. And there are studies to that effect, he said.

“Right now, we don’t have incidence of malaria in the Himalayas beyond areas above 1,000 ft. But that can change once global warming sets in. We also don’t find cases in Jammu & Kashmir or neighbouring states so far. This too could change. What it needs is as simple as infected people coming in and mosquito population getting active,”Gaikwad said.

Human infection risk

Explaining, he said that the human infection risk is always present since we travel a lot these days, though temporarily restricted due to the Covid-19 spread. The other trigger factor to be controlled is the mosquito menace. Here, climate change/ global warming could change the situation for the worse.

MNM India and The Weather Company have chosen two districts, Koraput and Malkangiri, in Odisha, for piloting the initiative. “We link the weather data sets with epidemiological datasets and try to extrapolate it to a larger area. Besides temperature, precipitation and humidity, we also look at the likelihood of extreme weather happening,” Gaikwad said.

ASHA workers at frontline

Other major factors to be considered are topography of the land, and height from sea level, and particularly forests. Some of the areas being focused in the two districts are heavily forested with big water bodies and a large density of tribal population. Some of these are inaccessible and an ASHA worker may need to walk for 10-12 km at the minimum here to deliver services.

Apart from these, there is also the human factor, especially that arising from migration. “After all, we could possibly have an area till now considered malaria-safe being threatened with an infected person coming in…or even the other way round when someone goes out from there and returns infected. We are tracking these trends as well,” Gaikwad said.

MNM India has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Odisha not specifically on this initiative but pertaining to the overall work that it is capable of taking up. “We also work closely with other Government of India institutions such as the ICMR and National Programme for Vector-Borne Diseases,” Gaikwad said.

Published on August 15, 2020

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