University of Leicester expertise developing app to map disease spread in finest detail

A project at the University of Leicester aims to develop an app that would allow public health bodies across the globe to access user-friendly and high resolution risk maps to help tackle climate-driven infectious diseases.

Funding of over £370,000 for the project has been announced today by the Wellcome Trust.

The climate crisis is a health emergency which is threatening the lives and wellbeing of communities around the world in many ways – including the spread of infectious diseases. 

Wellcome is supporting global research to advance solutions to address these urgent health threats, with funding for 24 research teams in 12 countries around the world to develop innovative digital tools to model the relationship between climate change and infectious disease. 

The £22.7 million funding will allow these projects will address critical gaps in understanding about where and when deadly disease outbreaks are likely to occur, helping policy-makers to plan ahead, prepare healthcare systems and increase treatment accessibility and resources, and respond rapidly with targeted and efficient public health measures, saving more lives. 

A team led by Dr Tim Lucas at the University of Leicester has been awarded £377,899 for the project ‘A web app for accessible, reproducible, multi-scale regression models for mapping climate driven infectious diseases’. 

Diseases cases are often reported at coarse county or state level. However, risk maps, at fine spatial resolutions, of climate-driven, zoonotic diseases are important for directing public health policy. New methods have been developed that can create fine spatial resolution maps from coarse case data, but the uptake of these methods is limited by the lack of user-friendly tools. 

In this project, the researchers aim to create an online app for fitting statistical models and making disease risk maps using these new methods. Importantly, agreements are in place to co-design this tool with public health bodies working on vaccination programmes, and in countries affected by high-burden zoonotic diseases. Lassa fever, a climate-sensitive, zoonotic disease, will be used as a case study to demonstrate a user-friendly workflow that predicts fine-scale cases from coarse case data in Nigeria. 

Dr Tim Lucas of the Department of Health Sciences said: "Taking existing statistical methods and making them useful and accessible for analysts working in high-burden countries is a vital part of my work as a biostatistician. Therefore, I'm very excited to be awarded this project in which we will make new tools so that coarse resolution case data can be used to create fine resolution risk maps. 

“I'm also very pleased that we will be co-designing these tools with analysts in Nigeria so that we make a tool that is actually useful for their purposes, and wanted."

As global temperatures continue to warm, more places are becoming suitable habitats for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Increases in extreme weather events like storms and floods can also contaminate water supplies and disrupt access to safe sanitation, causing the spread of life-threatening infections. 

Last year in Pakistan record monsoon rains resulted in a devastating outbreak of dengue, and in Nigeria flooding accelerated the spread of cholera. 

Action is needed now to address the risk of further escalation, including in areas where these diseases have never been reported before. By 2050, it is predicted that disease-carrying mosquitoes will reach up to 500 million more people than they do today. It is predicted that more than 1 billion people will be newly at risk of dengue, zika, chikungunya and many other diseases by 2080

Felipe Colón, Technology Lead at Wellcome, said: “The connection between climate change and the spread of infectious disease is often overlooked, or not made at all. This has resulted in a critical shortage of tools that model the relationship between climate change and disease outbreaks, and those that do exist are often complex and not accessible for local health official and policy-makers. Without these, decision-makers are in danger of finding themselves unprepared, leaving communities unprotected in the face of increasing disease outbreaks, risking the lives of millions. 

“Wellcome is committed to addressing the urgent global health threats of both the climate crisis and of escalating infectious disease. As part of this, we are proud to be supporting 24 global project teams to design and deliver innovative digital tools that can help predict where and when outbreaks might occur, and provide early warnings to enable preparations and mitigation measures to be put in place, leading to real-world benefits for the most vulnerable communities.” 

This funding follows a Wellcome-commissioned study, published earlier this year, which found only 37 fully developed tools for climate-sensitive infectious disease modelling (CSID). Most were created in North America and Europe, highlighting the need for greater global representation. 

The new tools will collect and integrate climate data into models of infectious diseases, allowing researchers to visualise the impact climate change might have on spread and transmission. Some will generate warning alerts of potential outbreaks ahead of time or the emergence of diseases not previously seen in their local areas, which could help decision-makers allocate resources more effectively to better protect current and future generations from some of the worst health impacts of climate change. 

Wellcome, a leading global funder of science to advance human health and wellbeing, has committed £16 billion over the coming decade to support scientific discovery and solutions to tackle the three most urgent health threats of our time - climate and health, infectious disease and mental health.