Remote Sensing and Human Health: New Sensors and New Opportunities

This article was writed by Louisa Beck, and published by CDC in 2000.

Extract of the CDC web site

Louisa R. Beck [1] [2], Bradley M. Lobitz, Byron L. Wood [2]

Abstract and Introduction


Since the launch of Landsat-1 28 years ago, remotely sensed data have been used to map features on the earth’s surface. An increasing number of health studies have used remotely sensed data for monitoring, surveillance, or risk mapping, particularly of vector-borne diseases. Nearly all studies used data from Landsat, the French Système Pour l’Observation de la Terre, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer. New sensor systems are in orbit, or soon to be launched, whose data may prove useful for characterizing and monitoring the spatial and temporal patterns of infectious diseases. Increased computing power and spatial modeling capabilities of geographic information systems could extend the use of remote sensing beyond the research community into operational disease surveillance and control. This article illustrates how remotely sensed data have been used in health applications and assesses earth-observing satellites that could detect and map environmental variables related to the distribution of vector-borne and other diseases.


Remote sensing data enable scientists to study the earth’s biotic and abiotic components. These components and their changes have been mapped from space at several temporal and spatial scales since 1972. A small number of investigators in the health community have explored remotely sensed environmental factors that might be associated with disease-vector habitats and human transmission risk. However, most human health studies using remote sensing data have focused on data from Landsat’s Multispectral Scanner (MSS) and Thematic Mapper ™, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR), and France’s Système Pour l’Observation de la Terre (SPOT). In many of these studies (Table 1), remotely sensed data were used to derive three variables: vegetation cover, landscape structure, and water bodies.

International space agencies are planning an estimated 80 earth-observing missions in the next 15 years[29]. During these missions >200 instruments will measure additional environmental features such as ocean color and other currently detectable variables, but at much higher spatial and spectral resolutions. The commercial sector is also planning to launch several systems in the next 5 years that could provide complementary data[30]. These new capabilities will improve spectral, spatial, and temporal resolution, allowing exploration of risk factors previously beyond the capabilities of remote sensing. In addition, advances in pathogen, vector, and reservoir and host ecology have allowed assessment of a greater range of environmental factors that promote disease transmission, vector production, and the emergence and maintenance of disease foci, as well as risk for human-vector contact. Advances in computer processing and in geographic information system and global positioning system technologies facilitate integration of remotely sensed environmental parameters with health data so that models for disease surveillance and control can be developed.

In 1998, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Center for Health Applications of Aerospace Related Technologies (CHAART) [3] evaluated current and planned satellite sensor systems as a first step in enabling human health scientists to determine data relevant for the epidemiologic, entomologic, and ecologic aspects of their research, as well as developing remote sensing-based models of transmission risk. This article discusses the results of the evaluation and presents two examples of how remotely sensed data have been used in health-related studies. The first example, a terrestrial application, illustrates how a single Landsat TM image was used to characterize the spatial patterns of key components of the Lyme disease transmission cycle in New York. The second example, which focuses on the coastal environment, shows how remote sensing data from different satellite systems can be combined to characterize and map environmental variables in the Bay of Bengal that are associated with the temporal patterns of cholera cases in Bangladesh. These examples demonstrate how remote sensing data acquired at various scales and spectral resolutions can be used to study infectious disease patterns.

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[1California State University, Monterey Bay, California, USA

[2NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, USA

[3CHAART was established at Ames Research Center by NASA’s Life Sciences Division, within the Office of Life & Microgravity Sciences & Applications, to make remote sensing, geographic information systems, global positioning systems, and computer modeling available to investigators in the human health community.

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