When a Computer Model Helps Prevent Cholera: a Conversation
Antar Jutla is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at WVU. Jutla has been instrumental in developing a computer program that has helped predict and prevent the spread of cholera in war-torn Yemen. Kara Lofton spoke with Jutla about how super computers and data can impact the spread of waterborne diseases after both natural and manmade disasters.
JUTLA: Cholera is a disease. And it's a highly infectious disease that is caused by drinking water contaminated with Vibrio cholerae. And there are a couple of pathogenic strains in the world that cause this disease in [the] human population. The disease is often fatal if it is not treated properly within, typically within, 24 hours. With the advancement in water infrastructure, like safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, the cholera cases have been down in regions where we have robust water infrastructure. But it remains a concern for regions where the water infrastructure is weak or it cannot sustain the needs of [the] human population.
So we have been working on finding solutions to predicting water and vector borne infections for over 10 years now. So my doctoral studies [were] also on waterborne infectious diseases. Then, after that, I basically carried on with this work and tried to find out new and innovative ways within the domain of civil and environmental engineering as to how we can find smarter solutions to save [the] human population.
We presented a conference paper last year at [the] American Geophysical Union, and it was reported in Scientific American. And after that, [a] couple of scientists approached me that they’re interested to look to our algorithms and try to see if we can really use [them] in places where there's nothing, there is no decision making. They were already working in Yemen. So that's how the collaboration started. They wanted us to predict and provide them with risk maps, … and we had algorithms prepared. And that's how everything started.
LOFTON: Are water borne diseases a third world problem exclusively? Or do we see them in the U.S. as well?
JUTLA: Oh, no, we do see…OK, so waterborne infections can become issues in those regions where there is a natural disaster and it affects the water distribution systems. So if there is an extreme event – extreme weather events, like hurricanes or earthquakes – that that damages the water infrastructure, then the chance of waterborne infections in any region of the world is high. As of now, we do not have this kind of risk in the more developed regions where we have emergency plans and where we have standard protocols for prevention or mitigation strategies. These policies – like mitigation or intervention strategies – are usually absent in developing regions. To summarize, I will say that waterborne infections can happen anytime, anywhere. It's basically how we are going to deal [with them] and make policies on providing safe water and sanitation infrastructure. [This] is something that is going to dictate whether a particular region will have an infection or not.
And the other thing that I want to point out is that cholera for us was a model disease… Since it was pretty fatal, that's why we started studying and predicting this disease in our work. If we can predict and prevent cholera, then the literature suggests that we are going to prevent another 20 to 22 types of waterborne infections from the human population. So by … making policies to prevent one infection, we are in fact going to help [the] human population against several other waterborne infections.
LOFTON: We are seeing a spike in natural disasters worldwide. Can this model be replicated for any location where water infrastructure breaks down?
JUTLA: The short answer is yes. We have used this model in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and now in Yemen. So the model can be replicated anywhere in the world, simply because we have continuous data from NASA satellites. [Having] said that, there is a human element to prediction as well, which means that if we produce a risk, then we need to understand how people are moving and how the intervention strategies are being carried out in a particular region. So … yes, the model is a model that can [be] replicated anywhere in the world.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.