Digital tools to predict the risk of disease outbreaks in climate change hotspots

JUN 2 2022

By jcanovas

A new BSC project, coordinated by the new Global Health Resilience Team, investigates the impacts of global environmental change on infectious disease risk.

The HARMONIZE project, coordinated by the new Global Health Resilience Team of the Earth Sciences Department at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center-Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS), has been officially launched. The Wellcome Trust funded project aims to better understand the link between climate change and the increasing risk in the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases, such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika, in the Latin America & the Caribbean (LAC) region, where their burden is greater than anywhere else in the world.

The LAC region is facing an increasingly complex health risk landscape. Warming temperatures due to climate change and extreme events such as intense droughts and heavy rainfall have implications for the timing and intensity of mosquito-borne and waterborne disease outbreaks. Added to environmental degradation and socio-economic inequalities, the situation has resulted in explosive epidemics of dengue and other climate-sensitive infectious diseases.

We currently lack the scientific knowledge needed to understand and predict the diverse impacts of extreme events and landscape changes on disease risk, leaving local communities in climate change hotspots vulnerable to increasing health threats. Regional agencies and national governments must also be informed about climate trends and the effect of extreme events in order to prepare adaptation plans and design health policies. This lack is partially due to a need for empirical evidence describing environmental change in remote and under-resourced areas, as well as a lack of trained research software engineers and data scientists.

HARMONIZE aims to develop cost-effective and reproducible digital infrastructure for stakeholders in climate change hotspots in Latin America & the Caribbean, including cities, small islands, highlands, and the Amazon rainforest. The project will gather, organise and post-process climate, environmental, socio-economic and health data coming from different sources, as well as collect new ground data using drone technology and low-cost weather sensors in areas most relevant for disease transmission.

HARMONIZE will collect new ground data using drone technology in areas most relevant for disease transmission.

“By gathering disparate multi-source and multi-scale data to a resolution most useful for public health decision making, we can devise computational models to detect associations between climatic and environmental factors and disease risk and use these to predict when and where disease outbreaks and disease emergence are most likely to occur,” said ICREA professor Rachel Lowe and leader of the Global Health Resilience Team. 

The main challenge of HARMONIZE is to create digital toolkits that meet the needs of local communities in climate change hotspots. This will allow local users to understand the links between environmental change and infectious disease risk in their own context, and build robust early warning and response systems in low-resource settings.

“We hope that by gathering new and existing data to help understand, monitor, and predict the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on infectious disease risk will increase adaptive capacity and resilience of local communities to the harmful effects of climate change,” added Prof Lowe.


Key partners of the project

HARMONIZE convenes a transdisciplinary community of stakeholders, software engineers, and data scientists between LAC and Europe. The digital tools created throughout the project will serve key partners like InfoDengue, an early warning surveillance system for urban arboviruses, viruses transmitted by arthropods like flies, mosquitos and ticks, that provides weekly analysis of urban arboviruses in all Brazilian municipalities.

"I expect a significant improvement in the dengue outbreak alerts in Brazil by increasing the climate data quality in rural areas and the implementation of forecasts. These improvements will have an impact on the identification of areas at risk and timely allocation of resources," pointed out Dr Cláudia Codeço, Researcher of Fundação Oswaldo Cruz and Director of InfoDengue.

Governmental agencies, such as the Brazilian Climate & Health Observatory, will also benefit from the digital toolkits to quickly and efficiently gather the necessary data to assess the interconnections between climate, environment and health, as well as identify the local characteristics that may magnify or reduce the impact of climate change.

"Monitoring climate change and its health impacts is an essential task. But to achieve this, we need good data, appropriate models and communication strategies with government and civil society. The HARMONIZE project is already enabling these connections," declared Dr Christovam Barcellos, Coordinator of the Brazilian Climate and Health Observatory.

Project partners include the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz and the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais in Brazil; the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Peru; the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia; the Oficina Nacional de Meteorología in the Dominican Republic; and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research in Uruguay.


The BSC Global Health Resilience Team

Prof Rachel Lowe, principal investigator of HARMONIZE, joined the BSC in January 2022 to establish the new Global Health Resilience Team in the Earth Sciences Department. Their mission is to apply a transdisciplinary approach to co-designing policy-relevant methodological solutions, to enhance surveillance, preparedness and response to climate-sensitive disease outbreaks and health outcomes.

She has published high impact research on the effects of global environmental change on infectious diseases, with a focus on incorporating seasonal climate forecast information in dengue early warning systems.

“Alongside climate scientists, software engineers and knowledge integration experts in the BSC Earth Sciences department, the Global Health Resilience Team conducts research on disentangling the impacts of global environmental change on infectious disease risk and co-developing impact-based forecasting models at sub-seasonal to decadal timescales in collaboration with public health, disaster risk management, and humanitarian agencies,” she concluded.