Bringing satellites to users can improve public health and safety

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The newest Earth-observing satellites deployed by NASA and other agencies around the world are streaming back information about air pollution in nearly real time. (NASA Worldview Image courtesy of HAQAST.)

This story appeared first at wisc.edu.

The drumbeat calling scientists to share their work with the public is as loud as ever, and Tracey Holloway is happy to answer. It’s just that education isn’t exactly what she’s offering.

She’s got satellites.

“We have hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of data from satellites that have been up in space for over 10 years,” says Holloway, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and member of the GHI Advisory Committee. “And we know people have problems they want to solve. And we want to know how we can help.”

Holloway leads a group of 13 researchers drawn together as NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST) who are trying to step outside their community of atmospheric scientists and satellite experts to provide space-based tools to relative laypeople — and to put those new users in a position to shape the way satellite data is collected and used.

“We have hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of data from satellites that have been up in space for over 10 years,” says Tracey Holloway. “And we know people have problems they want to solve. And we want to know how we can help.” (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.)

Holloway presented HAQAST’s brand of public engagement here Feb. 16 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The traditional model of science outreach moves in one direction: scientists disseminating information,” says Holloway. “What’s unusual about our experience with HAQAST is that we’re building a two-way dialogue to move the research along and to make sure that the research is addressing questions of social value.”

The newest Earth-observing satellites deployed by NASA and other agencies around the world are streaming back information about the air we breathe in nearly real time, and with coverage that dwarfs ground-based sensors. They can see atmospheric pollutants like nitrogen dioxide — NO2, a lung irritant that also forms the problematic greenhouse gas ozone — and dust and smoke from storms and fires.

“A big question is how air quality is changing in areas where we don’t have ground monitors,” says Holloway. “States in the Western U.S. may only have one or two monitors, and only in major cities. But there are two instruments in space that can see NO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, and they see the whole world once a day.”

That could be a boon for lawyers, urban planners and doctors tasked with air pollution management and public health decisions trying to track air quality shifts in rural and even suburban areas. But while the satellites take in all the Earth in 24 hours, it can be tough for potential data customers to keep track of cutting-edge science.

“What’s unusual about our experience with HAQAST is that we’re building a two-way dialogue to move the research along and to make sure that the research is addressing questions of social value.”

“The mission for these folks is to do their job — to keep the air clean, to develop good policies, to protect public health, to understand the problem so they can solve it,” says Holloway. “We don’t want to expect them to read our scientific journals, trying to figure out how to use novel data sources in new ways.”

HAQAST is. And their brand of public outreach involves special issues of industry magazines, visits to meetings of professional organizations and state consortiums, social media, and visits with individual agencies and small groups in an effort to remove any and all barriers.

“A lot of people have no idea where the front door is: ‘Can you just call up a scientist?’“ says Holloway. “And they really don’t know if you can ask a scientist to get something you need. We want those questions.”

Planning a new satellite and shooting it into orbit is not a casual enterprise. It takes years, presents hard decisions about which capabilities are worth adding or subtracting, and requires a commitment from researchers like Holloway to interpret — and find new ways to use — the resulting data. NASA’s HAQAST effort helps identify data that users will value, and how to make the best use of the instruments that are already up in space.

“I’m promoting super high-value data that’s readily available online, but I also want those users to help guide our next research questions,” Holloway says. “It takes time to go from a good idea to a published research study — or another instrument in space. Nobody should have to wait 10 years to know how to use data from new-generation satellites.”

“Science is about having good ideas and fresh perspectives to solve problems. It’s hard to do that if you don’t expose yourself to new people and different viewpoints.”

Input from fire chiefs may help NASA provide real-time tracking of smoke plumes from wildfires, and meetings with air quality workers in Maricopa County, Arizona, sparked work by one of Holloway’s graduate students to sharpen the way satellite measurements of formaldehyde in the air are used to track pollutants that can cause smog, make people sick and contribute to climate change.

Stepping outside their usual scientific circles puts the HAQAST members in touch with people who may know plenty about air quality, but from the perspective of a business or policy-maker or doctor or community group, according to Holloway.

“Those members of the public deserve more credit for what their expertise can contribute to the scientific enterprise,” she says. “Science is about having good ideas and fresh perspectives to solve problems. It’s hard to do that if you don’t expose yourself to new people and different viewpoints.”

By Chris Barncard, University Communications/ February 16, 2017

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GHI supports SVM researcher to help find Zika virus in Colombia, look for ways to stop it

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Zika virus is transmitted by a specific mosquito called Aedes aegypti. The mosquito is common in Colombia and other countries where Zika has become prevalent. (Photo: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Zika virus is transmitted by a specific mosquito called Aedes aegypti. The mosquito is common in Colombia and other countries where Zika has become prevalent. (Photo: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

This story originally appeared on vetmed.wisc.edu.

In October 2015, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Universidad de Sucre in Colombia ran the first tests confirming the presence of Zika virus transmission in the South American country.

In a study published Jan. 26, 2016 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, the team documents a disease trajectory that started with nine positive patients and has now spread to more than 13,000 infected individuals in that country.

“Colombia is now only second to Brazil in the number of known Zika infections,” says study lead author Matthew Aliota, a research scientist in the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM).

The Global Health Institute provided support for the paper’s first author, Erwin Camacho, a visiting doctoral student from Colombia and research specialist in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Camacho confirmed the virus was in Colombia, and from the positive samples, traced its origins to Brazil and to French Polynesia. Camacho, from the Universidad de Sucre, has been at UW-Madison working on the project since October. Students and technical workers like Erwin definitely play a major role in the research going on on campus,” Aliota says.

Zika virus, which spreads among humans via mosquitoes, causes illness characterized like many other viral infections by fever, rash and joint pain. Officials estimate that four out of five people who contract the virus do not get sick and the virus is rarely fatal. However, pregnant women in Brazil infected with Zika have given birth to babies with small heads and underdeveloped brains, a condition called microcephaly.

“If you’re pregnant or planning on being pregnant, absolutely, cancel your vacation,” says Aliota, echoing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning that pregnant women not travel to the more than 20 countries now known to have active Zika transmission, like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and in the Caribbean. In these countries, mosquitoes are spreading the virus to people.

For the Colombian finding, Aliota and his research team, which includes GHI Advisory member Jorge Osorio, professor of pathobiological sciences at SVM, and two visiting doctoral students from Colombia, tested samples from 22 patients for the genetic fingerprints of Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses.

Matthew Aliota

Matthew Aliota

Nine came back positive for Zika virus. Now, 13,500 cases have been identified in Colombia. The researchers’ findings highlight the need for better, more accurate laboratory diagnosis of Zika virus.

The symptoms of Zika virus are “really nonspecific and it overlaps with a lot of things, especially with dengue virus and chikungunya,” says Aliota. “It’s hard when someone comes in with a fever and a rash to narrow it down.”

Zika virus was first found in Uganda in 1947 but remained limited to Africa and Southeast Asia for decades. But in 2007, an outbreak occurred in the Pacific Islands and recently the virus began to spread in the Western Hemisphere.

“Historically, Zika virus has just caused mild disease, but as it moved into the New World, in Brazil, we started to notice these more serious consequences associated with it,” says Aliota. “There is a lot that is unknown.”

Aliota hopes to help change that.

His research on Zika virus and others like it is focused on how the viruses evolve and adapt to their hosts, including mosquitoes and humans. As he and the team show in the study, the Zika virus has split into two distinct lineages, African and Asian. The Colombia strain of the virus can be tracked to Brazil, which can be traced to a strain that originated in French Polynesia.

“There is certainly something different about these viruses that have allowed or facilitates this geographic expansion,” Aliota says.

He and Osorio are now looking for ways to control it. As members of the Eliminate Dengue Program, an international effort managed by Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, they have explored how a bacterium that infects 60 percent of insects around the world may be used as a tool to combat the spread of dengue and similar mosquito-borne viruses.

Transmission electron micrograph of Zika virus. (Photo: Cynthia Goldsmith, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Transmission electron micrograph of Zika virus. (Photo: Cynthia Goldsmith, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Zika, dengue and chikungunya (which are also found in Colombia) are RNA viruses, which refers to how they encode their genetic material, and each is transmitted by a specific mosquito called Aedes aegypti. The mosquito is common in Colombia and other countries where Zika has become prevalent.

The bacterium, Wolbachia, is not naturally found in the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but researchers with Eliminate Dengue have found that when they infect mosquitoes with the bacteria in the lab, it prevents them from transmitting dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

“The Eliminate Dengue Program is doing field experiments to see, will we be able to replace wild-type, existing populations of mosquitoes with these Wolbachia-infected ones and does it block dengue transmission?” Aliota says. “Now, we’re going to start looking at how that might be used for Zika virus control as well in South America.”

Here in Madison, Aliota is also trying to better understand how these viruses might evolve and adapt to this potential control strategy, to try to stay ahead of any potential issues they might encounter in the field.

But while Texas and Florida need to be on alert, Aliota says Wisconsinites need not be worried about transmission of Zika virus here.

“We’re not going to get Zika transmission in Wisconsin. We don’t have Aedes aegypti,” he says. “The cold winters are good for something.”

By Kelly April Tyrrell, University Communications/ January 26, 2016

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