West Virginia Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Antar Jutla; Source: West Virginia University

Computer predictions help aid workers tackle Yemen cholera epidemic

As the UN issues warnings of a possible 'third wave' of the cholera epidemic in Yemen, the UK's Department for International Development, the Met Office, UNICEF and NASA-funded researchers join forces to tackle the outbreak.


[London, UK] A new system is helping to reduce the number of cholera cases in Yemen, allowing humanitarian teams to target their response by predicting where the disease is most likely to occur and spread. 

Yemen suffered the worst cholera outbreak in history in 2017, with over 1.1 million suspected cases, resulting in more than 2,300 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The agency warns the disease, which is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with the Vibrio cholerae bacterium, remains a 'global threat to public health'. 

But a new computer model, developed by a NASA-funded team of US researchers, led by West Virginia University Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Antar Jutla, along with University of Maryland microbiologists Rita Colwell and Anwar Huq, achieved 92% accuracy in predicting which regions would be affected by cholera outbreaks in 2017 in Yemen. 

The likelihood of an outbreak is determined by combining satellite measurements of environmental conditions with data on sanitation and clean water infrastructure.

Fergus McBean, UK Department for International Development (DFID) humanitarian advisor, contacted the US experts and asked them to create and implement a cholera forecasting system in Yemen in only four months, before the rainy season started.

“DFID has brought together experts from around the world to predict where the risk of cholera is highest so that aid workers can act before it’s too late.

“By joining up international expertise with those working on the ground, we have, for the very first time, used these sophisticated predictions to help save lives and prevent needless suffering for thousands of Yemenis,” said DFID Chief Scientist Charlotte Watts.

In March, working with UNICEF and the Met Office, the DFID started using the model's predictions. 

NASA says initial results show the new approach can ‘fundamentally change how the international community addresses cholera’; the number of suspected cases for the last week of June was down to nearly 2,600, from 50,000 at the same time last year. 

“This ground-breaking initiative is a testament to the importance of interdisciplinary and multi-agency efforts to improve disease preparedness and response,” said John Haynes, NASA Earth Science Division Programme Manager for Health and Air Quality Applications. 

However, the US researchers warn ‘there is still a lot of work’ left to do before the forecast model can be used to provide ‘accurate predictions everywhere’, explaining the next step is to create ‘global risk maps for cholera’.

Leontina Postelnicu

To share tips, news or announcements, contact the writer on lpostelnicu@himss.org

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