Researchers Awarded for Work on New Tool to Predict Cholera Outbreaks


A team of researchers from Tufts University and the University of Maryland have discovered a way to predict cholera outbreaks using satellite data from coastal waterways.

The threat cholera poses on public health is limited in range, but where this infectious disease hits, it can hit hard. However, researchers recently received a prestigious award for developing a new tool that has the potential to predict cholera outbreaks, which they hope will assist in the fight against the disease.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year there are 1.3 million to 4 million cholera cases around the world, resulting in anywhere from 21,000 to 143,000 deaths. The infectious disease, caused by the Vibrio cholera bacteria, is an illness marked by acute diarrhea. More mild cases can occur with no symptoms, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that about one in 10 cases lead to severe watery diarrhea, vomiting, and leg cramps. Without the proper treatment — with antibiotics offering relief to shorten the length of illness – such cases result in serious dehydration and shock that can result in death. Cholera is transmitted through water contaminated with feces from infected individuals, meaning populated areas without sufficient water sanitation, adequate hygiene, or proper plumbing are at highest risk for cholera outbreaks. People who drink, bathe in, eat seafood from, or cook with contaminated water are most likely to become infected.

Some of the countries hit with cholera outbreaks in recent years include United Republic of Tanzania, Iraq, South Sudan, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and Haiti. In many cases, humanitarian crises such as natural disaster and conflict have been risk factors for cholera epidemics. Shafiqul Islam, ScD, professor at Tufts University School of Engineering, and director of the Water Diplomacy Program, along with his colleague Rita Colwell, PhD, infectious disease researcher at the University of Maryland’s Department of Cell Biology & Molecular Genetics, have recently been honored for their research on predicting cholera outbreaks. In a recent press release, Tufts University announced that the pair have received the 7th Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water (PSIPW) Creativity Award, which focuses on recognizing innovating work in water research around the world. The PSIPW award is given to five recipients working in water research every two years, and the award ceremony was recently held at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon presiding over the event.

The PSIPW team awarded Dr. Islam and Dr. Colwell this year for their research on the development of a system to forecast cholera outbreaks using satellite imagery. With a team that included students, faculty, and researchers from each of their institutions, they discovered that satellite data could be used to track macro-environmental factors that contribute to cholera outbreaks, essentially helping to create an early warning system for such epidemics. In their research, the team found that Vibrio cholera bacteria survive and grow best in either the human intestine or coastal waters, and can spread inland through rivers and waterways. Cholera bacteria attach to zooplankton which feed on phytoplankton, and the team discovered a correlation between areas with increased levels of phytoplankton and increased cholera bacteria. Large plankton blooms can be detected with satellites that can measure the abundance of green chlorophyll, therefore offering a way to monitor areas which may harbor the cholera bacteria and are, thus, at risk for an outbreak.

“There is no Noble Prize in water,” prizewinner Dr. Islam said in an interview with Contagion. “This prize is highly competitive and its review and selection process are extremely rigorous. Its impressive list of recipients includes some of the most influential intellectual and professional giants in the water domain. As a result, it has already attained the respect of the global water community almost at the level of a Noble Prize in water. PSIPW is providing the global exposure and awareness water knowledge and innovation needs to have actionable outcome. We are grateful that PSIPW has not only recognized our many years of interdisciplinary research but also provided prominence to this timely and humane work.”

WHO notes that with limited global surveillance, health officials have difficulties monitoring and responding to cholera outbreaks; therefore, they call for better surveillance along with stronger preparedness and response efforts in cholera-affected areas.

“The Cholera Outbreak Prediction system from satellite has the capabilities and functionalities to be useful for many regions of the world where minimal or no resources are available for ground measurements. My hope is that our findings will enable medical professionals to anticipate and prevent cholera outbreaks,” said Dr. Islam in the press release. “I’m honored and humbled to receive this recognition and hope it will call global attention for action and operationalize this predictive model to save lives in cholera-endemic and resource-limited regions of the world.”

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