Ebola outbreak help extends from space

Space technology such as satellite images and telemedicine could play a bigger role in helping to control the Ebola outbreak that's killed more than 11,250 people.

Telemedicine and innovative devices could help reduce unnecessary exposures to virus

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield holds the Microflow experiment to test how the instrument counts blood cells in orbit. Such space spinoffs have the potential to be applied to outbreaks of infectious diseases on Earth. (NASA)

Space technology such as satellite images and telemedicine could play a bigger role in helping to control the Ebola outbreak that's killed more than 11,250 people, a Canadian doctor says.

This week's issue of the medical journal Lancet Infectious Disease includes a commentary titled "Help from Above — outer space and the fight against Ebola."

Lead author Dr. Farhan Asrar, an assistant professor in family and community medicine at the University of Toronto, outlines how space assets, such as satellites coupled with portable, self-scanning medical devices and telemedicine, have been used to fight Ebola and other potential applications.

One motivation is the dedication of the more than 870 confirmed health workers infected with Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone since the start of the outbreak in March 2014.

"There were a significant number of health-care professionals that were impacted through this, over 500 passed away," said Asrar, who also teaches and conducts research at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.

There will always be a need to treat infected patients directly, but Asrar hopes telemedicine and innovative devices could help reduce unnecessary exposures to the virus and supplement monitoring of outbreaks.

For example on Earth, larger cytometers are used in health care to look at infectious cells, check for toxicity in blood diseases and to identify blood cancers. On the International Space Station, astronauts test on the Canadian Space Agency's miniaturized, low cost cytometer.

On the space station where there aren't always doctors present and resources are limited, the instruments aim to help astronauts test their own samples and obtain results quickly instead of waiting for samples to be returned to Earth.

There are parallels in Ebola. During the early stages of the outbreak in West Africa, sending samples to be tested was also difficult and time consuming.

Satellite images offer guide

Another space spinoff has already played a role in the Ebola outbreak. In October 2014, the United Nations activated the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters on behalf of the World Health Organization for the first time to respond to an infectious disease, said Asrar and his co-authors from NASA, Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada.

Even before the charter's activation, Doctors without Borders used high-resolution, freely accessible satellite images  from space to track the outbreak and plan its response, such as deciding where to set up camp, place treatment centres and devote resources.

"Space assets are readily available and being used to benefit global health, including Ebola virus disease and other infectious diseases," the authors said in calling for greater collaboration to enhance its applications in medical relief during outbreaks, as well as in other humanitarian crises or emergencies.

Asrar said the main challenge is magnitude, or scaling up how the technologies are applied to the masses.

Currently, astronauts have their medical parameters such as heart rate, pulse and blood pressure monitored and tracked over vast distances.

Asrar sees similar applications of telemedicine. Satellite phones are already used when phones service isn't available and portable ultrasounds under development for use in space could also empower health workers in African countries to assist expecting women and newborns, he suggested.


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