That environmental factors affect health is neither unknown nor new. But how are the two actually connected? How can predictions be better used to avoid, for example epidemics by initiating countermeasures on time? In the EU project EO2HEAVEN researchers aimed to answer exactly those questions. The IT architecture for evaluating and correlating data was provided by Dr. Kym Watson and his team at the Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation IOSB in Karlsruhe. The scientists will present the system concept at CeBIT at the Fraunhofer stand in Hall 9.
In the future, sensors, data and risk analysis should provide hospitals and health authorities with timely decision support in the event of an impending health threat.
Within this project three case studies were examined: In Dresden the relationship between air quality – measured in terms of temperature, particulate matter and ozone – and cardiovascular disease; in the South African city of Durban the relationship between air pollution in an industrial area and asthma; and in Uganda the influence of various environmental factors on cholera outbreaks. To this end the researchers at the IOSB developed a software architecture for early warning systems that correlates the environmental and health data and represents it in graphical form. “This allowed us for the first time to visualize the relationships between these factors on risk maps to create a better understanding of the complex environment-health nexus,” explains project coordinator Dr. Kym Watson.
For example, cholera in Uganda
This bacterial disease is transmitted mainly through water. Using sensors the project partners measure environmental parameters, such as rainfall, sunlight, pH value, temperature and nutrient concentrations in the water. They also included weather and climate forecasts in their analysis. On the other hand, the researchers recorded cholera-related health data from hospitals and physicians’ practices with mobile applications: What are the symptoms? Where has the patient been, etc.? This data is anonymized and transferred to a central server at the health authority in the capital. With the new software, the cases can now, for the first time, be shown as red dots on a digital map, illustrating their spatial and temporal correlation with the environmental data. This allows decision-makers to make better use of the resources in the affected areas and warn hospitals and doctors in advance.
The visualization has helped officials in Uganda to become fully aware of the significance of cholera outbreaks. Previously, individual cases had been recorded only in lists on paper. Hospitals and physicians can now prepare reports effectively and more rapidly. Scientists, too, have recognized the benefits of this solution: it saves them the effort of entering data manually and integrating it into their models for correlation analysis.
Citizens also benefit
In the long term it is conceivable, for example, that asthmatics could create their own personal profile in an app. Kym Watson explains the principle: “Users can define the thresholds above which they haven an allergic reaction to pollen or poor air quality. The user can view his / her personal risk map that relates these thresholds to measured or forecasted environmental data. The app could even warn the user when a limit value is or is likely to be exceeded. ”
But it is not quite that simple
Firstly, it is difficult, especially in Germany, to obtain the required health data from the health insurance companies because these are, of course, strictly confidential. It is therefore important to process these data anonymously to ensure data protection, which presents a challenge. On the other hand, it is not always easy to implement the right measures required in the light of the interactions between the environment, people and socio-economic factors. Our IT solution provides “only” a tool for further decision-making. Whether cholera outbreaks can actually be contained, depends mainly on the actions taken, the quality of drinking water, hygiene, and available medical resources.
The researchers are implementing the cholera early warning system in collaboration with the World Health Organization WHO and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA. Kym Watson says: “We are currently still looking for sponsors and funding sources. It will probably take another two to five years until the solution is systematically used by decision-makers and scientists.”
The scientists will present the system at CeBIT at the Fraunhofer stand in Hall 9.
For further information about the project visit:
Coordinator: Fraunhofer IOSB
Project partners: Ten from the EU and three from Africa
Budget: about € 8.7 million, EU funding: about € 6.3 million