Jul 28, 2015

UAE's space ambitions can help tackle global health crises

(July 2015) Data from satellites can be used to monitor disease outbreaks and plan relief response

Estimated Article Reading Time: 4 min.

As the UAE continues to strengthen its position in the field of space science, the ongoing development could witness a giant leap in the field of health care too.

The potential of telemedicine, tele-epidemiology and space assets including satellite imagery is huge for health care – and it could tackle health care crises like Ebola.

Dubai-born Dr Farhan Asrar is an assistant professor at the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto and also holds faculty positions with the International Space University (France) and McMaster University (Canada).

He told Khaleej Times that outer space offers the potential for “limitless growth” in many areas. “Space often plays a significant role in our lives but sometimes we just do not realise it and give it due credit.”

Lead author and project lead of the recently published paper, ‘Help from above: Outer space and the fight against Ebola’, which appears in the latest edition of Lancet Infectious Diseases, Dr Asrar said the UAE’s ongoing inroads in space technology can offer huge benefits in health care.

“I admire the UAE’s strides in space development. (The ambition of) … His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is like that of John F. Kennedy’s. (His) mission was to send a man to the moon and he did. Shaikh Mohammed has really ambitious plans for space, and his leadership has the ability to achieve those ambitious goals.”

This progress and advancement in the space field could see the UAE offer its services to help tackle the spread of infectious diseases around the world.

Dr Asrar said the UAE’s projects such as Dubai Sat 1 and Dubai Sat 2 (advanced imaging satellites) provide the right tools and knowledge to create greater awareness on the benefits of space, even in health care. “The UAE can use satellites and remote sensing data in cases of disaster relief, which it has already done … in the past and also for tele-epidemiology.”

The information the satellites provide can be used by the UAE and/or be shared with health care organisations worldwide.


Tele-epidemiology involves using space-based applications and remote sensing data in epidemiological assessments and applications.

Dr Asrar said the Ebola virus disease was first reported as a zoonotic infection and satellites helped map the transmission among animals. With the virus spreading between human beings, satellite images continue to help monitor habitats and patient population.

“Space can also provide satellites to bridge that communication gap when disease outbreak occurs in rural locations. Additionally, satellite images can be used for the monitoring and tracking of outbreaks, as well as in the preparation and planning of the relief response to the outbreak,” he said.

The current outbreak of Ebola virus has caused 11,220 deaths, with 15,085 lab-confirmed cases in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia as of early July this year.

These numbers included 509 deaths and 874 infections in health care professionals.

In his paper – which was co-authored by experts from the United Nations (UN), Nasa, Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency, European Space Policy Institute and the Public Health Agency of Canada – Dr Asrar breaks down the great potential for eliminating the spread of infectious diseases using space assets.

Telemedicine has also been pitted as one of the most crucial elements in tackling infectious disease. It involves easy to use, often compact equipment that can monitor health and provide diagnosis and treatment from a distance. “It provides direct communication, and real-time patient interaction and monitoring,” Dr Asrar said.

Telemedicine can also help reduce the number of unnecessary exposures between health care professionals and infected individuals, thereby reducing their risk of becoming infected.

The technology is already being used in hospitals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and allows specialists to interact with patients either on or off site. Increasingly, it is being been used to provide health care across the world, particularly in rural and remote areas. And this needs to continue, he said.

Though space is already playing a vital role in tackling infectious disease outbreaks around the world, the UAE’s current and future space pursuits can be utilised even more in the area of public health and disaster management.

For now, the space-health care link may be a small step for the UAE, but it has the potential to take giant leaps in the future.


Investing in Space

With an investment exceeding $5.44 billion in commercial and scientific space projects, the UAE is steadily progressing towards becoming a truly international player in the space sector.

Investments in space technologies are shared among several companies and space programmes, including satellite communications companies Yahsat and Thuraya; and the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), which leads the DubaiSAT 1 and DubaiSAT 2 programmes.

Some of the country’s ongoing space projects include the Mars probe, Dubai Sat 1, Dubai Sat 2 and Khalifa Sat. Earlier this year, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) was created and established by the Dubai government.

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