Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite transmitted by female Anopheles mosquitoes. The symptoms of malaria include: fever, chills, and a flu like illness. If left untreated death is likely. According to the CDC website, “In 2015 an estimated 212 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide and 429,000 people died, mostly children in the African Region” (CDC). In the United States, the disease is not nearly as common and death is extremely unlikely since there is access to treatment. Additionally, the disease was eliminated in the United States around 1950. Cases in the United States occur because of travel to areas where malaria infection rates are high.
The parasite responsible for malaria is a protist from super phylum alveolata, phylum apicomplexa. Four species from the genus Plasmodium cause malaria in humans: P. falciparum, P. malariae, P. ovale, and P. vivax. Plasmodium vivax being the most common species to cause the disease.
Plasmodium can infect birds, reptiles, and mammals. Plasmodium have a three step life cycle. The stages are: gametocytes, sporozoites, and merozoites. The gametocytes are picked up by a female Anopheles mosquito when they ingest the blood of an infected host. While inside the mosquito the gametocytes develop into the sporozoite stage. When the infected mosquito feeds on a host the sporozoites travel from the saliva to the bloodstream of the new host. The sporozoites then travel to the liver where they develop into merozoites. Rapid divisions of sporozoites and merozoites begin to infect the blood stream, injecting themselves into red blood cells to continue divisions and protect themselves from white blood cells. Merozoites can go on to produce gametocytes within the host to begin the cycle again if another mosquito feeds on the infected host. This process can take anywhere between 24 hours and 72 hours after initial exposure.
The containment of malaria outbreaks is very difficult since it is near impossible to pinpoint where the initial exposure occurred. Preventative actions in countries with high risk of malaria involve spreading bed nets and other resources to as many places as possible. This has not been very effective since resources are spread thin. To predict where outbreaks will happen involves predicting where Anopheles mosquitoes will reproduce and feed. Anopheles mosquitoes thrive in areas with still waters, ponds and puddles, and warm air temperatures. These conditions are necessary for Anopheles to lay eggs. This is not a simple task for poorer countries such as northern Africa and South America. Researchers that have been working on malaria outbreak prevention have begun to implement satellite data from NASA to try and predict these conditions. The researchers have started to use the Land Data Assimilation System (LDAS) to predict the conditions. LDAS is a land-surface modeling system effort supported by many organizations, including NASA, that takes in information from many NASA satellites to provide an ongoing analysis of worldwide precipitation, temperature, soil moisture, and vegetation. Using LDAS researchers can show areas where conditions that may produce outbreaks will likely form.
For more information on LDAS and the project: