Managing health risks with Earth observations

Blog / July 6, 2022

By John Haynes, Juli Trtanj, and Helena Chapman (GEO Health Community of Practice), Stéphanie Brazeau and Nick Ogden (Public Health Agency of Canada), and Guy Aubé (Canadian Space Agency) 

A new publication, developed with substantial inputs from the GEO community, shows how Earth observation (EO) data can be applied to better understand, predict, and manage infectious and chronic diseases. 

The textbook Earth Observation, Public Health and One Health: Activities, Challenges and Opportunities demonstrates how EO data can be used to support the development of early warning systems and enhance public health surveillance, which can ultimately strengthen health system preparedness and response efforts to emerging environmental health risks.

GEO Health Community of Practice (CoP) members Stephanie Brazeau and Nick Ogden of the Public Health Agency of Canada edited the textbook, with contributions and support from Guy Aubé of the Canadian Space Agency. International experts, including the co-chairs of the GEO Health CoP and the EO4Health Initiative provided scientific content, with a contribution also from the GEO Secretariat following an open dialogue during the One Earth One Health Workshop at the Earth Observation Summit in Montreal, Canada in 2017

The textbook explains how remote sensing provides detailed EO data that are particularly useful for risk modeling and mapping projects, which in turn can generate information on when and where diseases are occurring. 

Risk maps enable public health professionals to anticipate and prepare for health threats, and they can support responses to infectious disease epidemics or existing endemic conditions, such as non-infectious chronic diseases. By identifying where disease risks are most likely occurring, risk maps help public health manage and mitigate threats to health. The maps may identify risks before they emerge, giving public health experts the time to develop policies to prepare, respond to, and build resilience to health threats. 

EO also offer the potential to characterize and locate vulnerable populations. EO data and information products contain useful socioeconomic indicators, such as the characterization of urban environments and human population density. Geospatial information on environmental hazards (i.e. the exposure of the population to diseases) and human population vulnerability indicators (including sensitivity to disease and capacity to respond) can be combined to produce risk maps that illustrate environmental hazards and population vulnerability. This means that public health decisions and actions can be more efficiently targeted to specific populations – for example, the elderly or young children – in risk-prone environments. 

The textbook covers health topics including mosquito-borne and tick-borne diseases, water-borne diseases, air quality and extreme heat effects, and geospatial indicators of vulnerable human populations. 

The GEO Health Community of Practice, which supports the Earth Observations for Health (EO4Health) Initiative, represents a global network to connect Earth and health science experts across sectors and geographic regions and to share Earth observation data and tools for an array of public health applications. Members can join Small Work Groups that offer additional opportunities to leverage expertise and foster discussions addressing pressing environmental health issues, such as heat, air quality, infectious diseases, food security and safety, and health care infrastructure. The One Health concept – which highlights the nexus between human, animal, and ecosystem health – offers a cross-cutting theme across Small Work Group discussions and activities.

Future GEO Health CoP activities include expanding networks with Regional GEOs for collaborative activities (for example Special Webinar events), exploring the role of public and private partnerships for shared data and technology sources, and supporting Small Work Group activities that connect Earth and health science experts. The platform will reinforce EO4Health multidisciplinary collaborations that develop relevant environmental health applications to enhance health decision making and safeguard population health. 

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