You have probably checked maps detailing COVID-19 exposure locations at some point over the last 18 months. This type of health mapping is pretty straightforward, but did you know that maps can be used to find hidden health patterns, or identify trends in disease?
Using maps to study health outcomes over space and time is called spatial epidemiology – and that’s the field that Dr Kinley Wangdi, the 2021 VC Early Career Academic winner*, specialises in.
“I pursued a career in epidemiology following my experiences as a medical practitioner caring for patients with tropical diseases, particularly malaria and dengue, in southern Bhutan. Most of these diseases are preventable, and I wanted to work with the affected communities in preventing them,” says Wangdi.
Wangdi focuses on the emergence and re-emergence of dengue and malaria in Asia and the Asia Pacific region. Both these diseases are spread to humans by mosquitos, so determining where these mosquitos live, breed, and interact with humans is key to control and elimination.
First of all Wangdi maps existing cases of the disease, then compares these locations with environmental factors such as rainfall, humidity, vegetation cover, and land use. The Tiger mosquito (Aedes aegypti) carrying dengue, for example, tend to favour warm humid conditions, and urban areas with standing water. Wangdi uses this information to identify other parts of the country with similar climate and land use, and predicts where dengue may also be present.
Mapping changes in malaria carrying mosquito populations in Vietnam from 2009-2015, by Dr Wangdi. (PV = Plasmodium Falciparum, and PF = Plasmodium vivax mosquitos).
Spatial epidemiologists also look to the future.
“Forecasting is very, very interesting. Vector-borne diseases forecasting is done using the significant climatic and sociodemographic variables, such as climate change and expected population growth,” says Wangdi.
Wangdi is working with the Ministries of Health in the Asia Pacific region to use their health-related data for better planning and control of diseases. In particular developing early intervention systems to prevent dengue, improving malaria surveillance-response systems, with the aim of malaria elimination by 2030. And spatial epidemiology is key to success.
“Spatial epidemiology is the right tool to support the prevention of these diseases because their infections are driven by several climatic and environmental factors, which are space and time-dependent,” says Wangdi.
*Dr Kinley Wangdi was awarded the prestigious 2021 VC Early Career Academic award for his significant research output, outstanding publications record, and commitment to the HDR students under his supervision.
“I feel honoured to receive this award. This award is the recognition of my work in this field and it will make me even work harder. This award is a result of so many individuals with whom I have been working over the last few years. They are my supervisors, mentors, collaborators and colleagues. I would also like to thank ANU for providing me this platform to do my research and make an impact of the lives of people,” says Wangdi.