SERVIR - From space to tsetse fly? -

Published: Jul 22 2014

Mosquitoes, sand flies, and tsetse flies transmit deadly diseases such as malaria, trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, and Rift Valley Fever to millions of humans and animals each year in East Africa alone. Although this is very much an Earthly problem, SERVIR Applied Sciences Team member Pietro Ceccato is proving that a good way to fight these tiny menaces is from space.

At a recent workshop in Arusha, Tanzania, he trained research scientists from South Africa, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Botswana, Kenya, and Tanzania to do just that.  He showed them how to use real-time images captured by NASA satellites and sensors like TRMM, MODIS, and Landsat to monitor precipitation, temperature, vegetation, and water bodies -- environmental factors that influence the reproduction of many disease-carrying insects. Ceccato, who is affiliated with Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), has been developing these methods over the past two years.

"Using this type of information, my team has discovered, for example, that flood conditions in the April-May-June season in South Sudan will reduce sandfly activity and therefore the transmission of leishmaniasis from September to November," he notes.

Lately he has been collaborating with Paul Gwakisa from Tanzania and John Hargrove from South Africa in studying the impact of environmental conditions on the reproductive cycle of another fly -- the tsetse.  They are also investigating how local communities can access real-time environmental information from satellites to help control tsetse fly-borne trypanosomiasis transmission to cattle and humans.

 Maasai village in Tanzania
Maasai village in Tanzania affected by trypanosomiasis. Note that the
chief, 3rd from left, is on his cell phone. (Photo by Pietro Ceccato)  

Ceccato visited one such community -- a Maasai village -- after the workshop in Arusha.  During the visit, he had an 'a-ha moment' that may seem as surprising as using satellite technology to spy on flies.

"I was fascinated by the behavior of the chief, who was constantly on his mobile phone, connecting to people in the area," says Ceccato.

Ceccato's realization that a Maasai chief in a remote area of Africa routinely uses a cell phone made him think of using mobile technology to deliver real-time information from NASA sensors directly to the chief and others like him.

"They can be alerted on their cell phones to areas and periods when there is a higher risk of trypanosomiasis transmission," he asserts.

Anyone with a smart phone can access NASA Earth Observation satellite imagery by using IRI's Data Library Maproom interface (  This site enables viewers to see climatic information such as rainfall and temperature data at district, provincial, and country levels. It provides a consistent source of temperature and precipitation maps and data about the present and about the recent past and provides user-friendly tools for visualization, querying, and accessing this information.

 John Hargrove provides expertise
John Hargrove, an entomologist based in South Africa,
providing expertise on tsetse fly (Photo by Pietro Ceccato)  

With a look at this site via his cell phone, the Maasai chief can get real-time information on the location of pastures and water bodies as well as on rainfall and temperature conditions —all factors that determine whether and where the tsetse fly thrives and the transmission of trypanosomiasis is likely.

"Our next challenge will be to train these villagers on how to use these products for targeting control measures," says Ceccato.

Within his NASA SERVIR AST project and in collaboration with the World Health Organization Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, he'll soon be training not only researchers but also end users like the Maasai chief to use the vantage point of space in combatting Earthly disease carriers like the tsetse fly.


  • Ceccato leads a SERVIR AST project called “Development and Implementation of Flood Risk Mapping, Water Bodies Monitoring and Climate Information for Disaster Management and Human Health" to do this work. He is also involved with the IRI-SERVIR Stakeholder Engagement project, which has helped him find inroads for getting these water body maps as well as other SERVIR and IRI tools and data into the hands of the people who need them. 
  • The name of the workshop Ceccato attended in Arusha was 2nd Capacity Building Workshop for the World Health Organization TDR/IDRC research initiative on Population Health Vulnerabilities to Vector-Borne Diseases: Increasing Resilience under Climate Change Conditions in Africa. It was held at the Nelson Mandela University.
  • Click here to view a videotaped segment featuring Ceccato:
  • The Ceccato, Gwakisa, Hargrove research is part of an initiative funded by the World Health Organization Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (WHO TDR) to increase resilience to vector-borne diseases under climate change conditions in Africa. 

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