Managing the Ebola Virus: The Importance of Satellites

The death toll from the Ebola virus in West Africa has exceeded 10,000 since the first reported case in December 2013. Cases of the highly contagious disease have been confirmed in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Norway and Spain. While there has been a substantial decline of new Ebola cases, it is not yet under control. The Ebola outbreak suggests that defenses against such epidemics, although upgraded since SARS in 2003, need to be strengthened further — and satellite applications have an important role to play.

The prevention of epidemics requires disease detection, which requires reliable surveillance. However, only 64 of the 194 members of the World Health Organization have surveillance systems capable of meeting their obligations under the 2005 International Health Regulations. These regulations form legally binding international law and are aimed at: (a) preventing, protecting against, controlling and providing a public health response to the international spread of disease; and (b) avoiding the unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.

Many locations experiencing the spread of the Ebola disease pose problems in relation to diagnosis and containment: rural areas that have no access to hospitals or clinics equipped to deal with the number of patients and required levels of sterilization.

Mobile laboratory B-LiFE uses genetic analysis techniques to precisely identify the presence of biological agents that cause the Ebola disease. B-LiFE is a public, private and academic collaboration between SES, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Centre de Technologies Moléculaires Appliquées (CTMA), the Université Catholique de Louvain, Aurea Imaging, Eonix and Nazka Mapps.

Connectivity

The effectiveness of the diagnosis of the B-LiFE laboratory is dependent on real-time communication by satellite. The connectivity for B-LiFE is provided via an emergency.lu deployment kit with an inflatable antenna owned by the Luxembourg government. Emergency.lu also has a medical arm, the SATMED platform, which provides open-access to e-Health tools, communications and cloud services. SATMED was deployed in Sierra Leone to support NGOs’ work on preventing the Ebola virus from spreading. B-LiFE operates on the emergency.lu and SATMED platform with SES satellite capacity, funded by the Luxembourg government.

Eutelsat is also providing satellite connectivity for medical staff and volunteers in West Africa. Communicating directly with a Eutelsat satellite, broadband equipment to improve connectivity solutions for humanitarian organizations has been deployed in West Africa to assist in the fight against Ebola.

The spread of the disease is partly due to the lack of information as to what it is and how to treat a person infected with it. Satellites can also fill this gap. SES has launched an Ebola-focused education channel, “Fight Ebola,” which is broadcast via satellite across West Africa.

International Charter

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international emergency for the epidemic in August 2014, and a couple of months later, on October 9, 2014, the International Charter for Space and National Disasters was activated to assist with the response to the disease. The Charter is an international agreement between space agencies, which provides free satellite images in the immediate aftermath of natural or man-made disasters. Although it has been used in response to 400 disasters in more than 100 countries, this is the first time that it has been used for disease surveillance. Andy Hickl, senior director at Vulcan, Inc., considers that “the importance of reliable data connectivity can’t be overstated in a crisis like this. We’ve seen that the quality of care — and the effectiveness of the International response — improves when high quality connectivity is available.”

The successful use of satellite technology in combatting Ebola no doubt means that it will be increasingly used in the future to fight public health emergencies, both internationally and at a national level. VS

Joanne Wheeler is a partner at international law firm Bird & Bird.

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