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Upstate is part of research team looking at how weather data can predict dengue fever outbreak

Investigators from Upstate Medical University participated in a newly published study that uses weather data to successfully predict outbreaks of dengue fever in the Caribbean.

The study, led by Dr. Rachel Lowe from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tested whether dengue outbreaks in the Caribbean island of Barbados could be predicted using weather station data for temperature and a precipitation index (Standardized Precipitation Index- SPI) used to monitor drought and extreme rainfall. Using data from June 1999 to May 2016, researchers found that the statistical model was able to successfully predict months with dengue outbreaks versus non-outbreaks in most years. Dengue fever is a disease caused by a virus carried by the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, found throughout the tropics and subtropics. In recent decades, the disease has emerged as a major public health threat.

Upstate Assistant Professor Anna Stewart Ibarra, PhD, MPA, the senior author of the study, teamed with the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology, regional and national health agencies, and a team of interdisciplinary researchers to address the crisis of multiple epidemics of dengue fever and other diseases transmitted by the same mosquito, such chikungunya and Zika fever.

Their findings were published July 17 in the PLOS Medicine special issue on climate and health.

The results of the study are exciting, Stewart Ibarra explained, as it could help governments prepare to take actions to prevent dengue outbreaks, a top public health priority in the region.

“This study presents a novel modeling framework to predict epidemics that could be used by the health sector to plan interventions to reduce the risk of outbreaks,” said Dr. Rachel Lowe. “Public health decision-makers can use the dengue forecast as an early warning tool to plan interventions to reduce the risk of dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases.”

“This study highlights the importance of keeping long-term records of climate and health data so that we can learn about how a changing climate will impact our health and well-being in the future,” said Dr. Sadie Ryan, co-author from the University of Florida.

The study found that the risk of dengue outbreaks rose when the minimum temperature increased (up to 25°C) and during a period of time one month after excess rainfall. Among the study’s more interesting findings was the fact that dengue outbreaks also increased four to five months after a drought. Stewart Ibarra said she and others working on the project had heard from locals that was a recurring trend but it wasn’t until they studied the data that they found it to be true.

“Barbados is a water-scarce country. During periods of drought, people have to store water in and around the home,” she said. “That creates habitats for mosquitoes.”

Being able to predict an outbreak can help public health officials make decisions that will save lives. Stewart Ibarra said the project was a great example of how many agencies and an interdisciplinary team of academic researchers can “put our heads together to tackle a complex health issue” that is “a priority for public health.”

Stewart Ibarra is a faculty member in the Department of Medicine and Department of Public Health and Preventative Medicine. She is also director of the Latin America Research Program at Upstate’s Institute for Global Health and Translational Science. She has been studying diseases, dengue fever in particular, in Latin America and the Caribbean for more than a decade.

The Caribbean climate and health project included partnerships with the Caribbean Agency for Public Health, the Pan American Health Organization, as well as investigators from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of Florida and the Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral of Ecuador.

Caption: Upstate Medical University Assistant Professor Anna Stewart Ibarra, PhD, MPA, (left) is the senior author of a recently published study that uses weather data to successfully predict outbreaks of dengue fever in the Caribbean. Stewart Ibarra spent a lot of time working with health officials in Barbados during the study.

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