Nighttime Satellite Images Could Provide Clues To Disease Outbreaks, Researchers Suggest

“The intensity of light shining from cities at night could help identify hot spots where outbreaks of infectious disease are likely to take place,” PBS NewsHour’s “The Rundown” reports, adding, “A team of researchers tracked satellite images of three cities in Niger and found that fluctuations in nighttime brightness were strongly correlated to measles incidence, according to results published in this week’s Science.” According to the blog, “The same tracking of nighttime light could be used for other diseases as well, the team wrote, and could help public health officials plan for emerging epidemics and predict outbreaks.”

“Measles outbreaks tend to fluctuate with the seasons, usually spiking in the dry season in Niger from September to May. Migration patterns in many of the countries where the disease is still widespread also vary with the seasons, as people spread out to work on rural farmlands,” the blog notes. “The movement of populations has long been hypothesized as part of the measles outbreak pattern, but tracking seasonal population migration is difficult,” the blog states, adding that “changes in concentration of nighttime light reflected changes in population more accurately than past data tools like cell phone records or census estimates.” According to the blog, “The research team, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, used satellite images taken by the U.S. Department of Defense between 2000 and 2004 and data from Niger’s Ministry of Health to connect the two patterns” (Miller, 12/9).