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ESA joins the fight for health and safety

The European Space Agency is throwing its full support behind an initiative spearheaded by the Portuguese National Health Institute for the development of a Health Early Warning System (HEWS). This system will enable the timely detection and tracking of emerging threats to public health and safety via satellite.

Originally the brainchild of the Portuguese National Health Institute (INSA), the HEWS promises to be a boon not only for Europe but also for the world. HEWS is being developed as an integrated management platform devised to support epidemiologic surveillance, public health monitoring, crisis management and civil protection programmes.

Giorgio Parentela, ESA Telemedicine Task Force Manager, spoke at length about the importance of HEWS. ‘At the ministry level, interest was shown in the use of (the) HEWS system, not only for endemic pathologies that periodically plague the country, for example cholera, but also for health programmes that are part of the basic health interventions in African countries,’ he said. These are ‘usually sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO), such as the vaccination programme, to which HEWS could be easily adapted’.

HEWS involves a consortium of Portuguese and Italian companies, notably, Tekever (Portugal) and Ridgeback (Italy) along with ESA and INSA. Currently INSA is responsible for its scientific and management aspects.

Recently, HEWS was put to the test in the south-eastern African country of Angola, a former colony of Portugal. This involved the collaboration of local health institutions and the involvement of higher-level Angolan institutions such as the Ministry of Health. The scenario for this test was a simulated surge of the Marburg virus. This scenario followed on from an earlier one conducted early last year in Lisbon, Portugal.

In both these scenarios, the HEWS system demonstrated the added value of satellite communications in situations in which there are threats to public health. Both scenarios offered a demonstration of the developed modular HEWS system that can add institutions, customise data input, implement early warning alert systems and response to health situations with automated distribution of the respective alert information, and guarantee all required security levels of information.

What is important to note in the test case in Angola is that it was conducted in the small town of Caxito; located in north-western Angola it is the capital of Bengo Province and has a population of approximately 719 people. More importantly for the test, is that the town has no reliable means of communication. Communication via satellite is currently the only fully viable solution, not only for emergency situations but also for regular health, epidemiological and administrative reporting.

Currently, team members are exploring the possibilities of making the HEWS service suitable for the needs of the population with the Angolan authorities. The scenario conducted in Lisbon involved the staging of a bio-terrorist attack at an international conference. During the staged attack, Bacillus anthracis spores or anthrax were released, causing panic among the population, traffic jams and the saturation of the mobile telephone network.

Through the course of events it was determined that HEWS played a crucial role in two areas; the release of a powder in a public square and the isolation and storming of a building. HEWS would be able to maximise the coordination of the information flows between the several institutions involved, overcome communication difficulties and increase the efficiency of the response effort.

‘The major points of relevance were considered to be the fact that the HEWS system is a reliable and versatile communication system and (that it) has the potential to act as a manager and distributor of information between the institutions,’ says Mr Parentela.