Model to Forecast Cholera Outbreaks

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by Chris Carroll | Illustration by Kelsey Marotta

Research by Maryland microbiologist Rita Colwell is enabling a new international aid effort to predict and stop potential epidemics of cholera before they happen.

The British-led effort, which began last summer in Yemen, draws on decades of Colwell’s work to understand the water-borne bacterium Vibrio cholerae that causes the disease, and uses a computer model designed to forecast cholera outbreaks developed by a team of U.S. scientists headed by Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, Antar Jutla, a hydrologist and civil engineer at West Virginia University, and UMD’s Anwar Huq, a former graduate student of Colwell’s who is a research professor in the university’s Maryland Pathogen Research Institute.

Colwell—who began studying the bacterium in the late 1960s and conceived the idea of forecasting and proactively fighting cholera outbreaks in 1995—says seeing her vision realized “is the greatest satisfaction any scientist, mathematician, or engineer could possibly have… essentially a dream fulfilled.”  

Using data from NASA satellites and other sources, the team’s computer model provides risk maps for cholera in Yemen and other regions based on factors that include air and water temperatures; precipitation; severity of natural disasters; availability of clean water; sanitation and hygiene infrastructure; population density; and severity of natural disasters.

“By being able to predict when and where cholera is of highest risk, it makes it possible to deliver supplies and arrange for safe drinking water effectively and accurately,” said Colwell, a former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation whose career has bridged the disciplines of microbiology, genetics, ecology, infectious disease, public health, data analysis and satellite technology.

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