Land Use Patterns and Political Instability as Predictors for the Re-emergence of Malaria in the Caucasus

This project is in collaboration with: Dr. Katherine Hirschfeld. Others working on the project are PhD student Bradley Brayfield, MS student James Worden, and data researcher Braden Owsley. We also collaborate with Dr. Ani Melkonyan.

Caucasus region during Soviet times.

Malaria was once very prevalent throughout southern Russia and the Caucasus. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 200,000 people were ill with malaria in Armenia in the early 1930s, with another 600,000 in Azerbaijan. 

The Caucasus is naturally hospitable to the malaria mosquito, but large-scale eradication efforts during the Soviet period resulted in an almost total disappearance. The region was first declared malaria free in 1975, but in the 1980s and 1990s, malaria reappeared in the Caucasus, the Central Asian republics, and to a lesser extent in Russia because of the war in Afghanistan, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the appearance of unstable successor states. Outmigration, agricultural development projects and collapse of existing public health prevention activities also contributed to the resurgence of malaria in the region. Past and recent outbreaks in the Trans-Caucasian countries have underlined the fact that all these countries are situated within epidemic-prone areas. In 2015, Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus were free of malaria transmission once more, for the first time in almost 30 years (World Health Organization 2015).

This project combines spatial and temporal analysis to improve predictive modeling in disease ecology and international health. The overall objective is to apply remotely sensed data for the development of suitability maps for malaria in the Caucasus. Once these maps are created, the goal is to distinguish and isolate the effects of political instability, which include the cessation of malaria prevention, from the land use and land cover impact on malaria transmission by creating precise timelines of each country’s post-Soviet historical trajectory. Institutional failures under unstable governments during periods of conflict could undermine or interrupt public health work so that disease vectors proliferate. This research is based on a solid set of remote sensing methods, which will be expanded by the incorporation of SAR imagery. The development of error surfaces by comparing multiple data streams presents a significant new development.

We investigate trends in land use in the Caucasus between 1984 and 2019 and focus specifically on the change in agriculture from rain-fed to irrigation, forest fragmentation because of overharvesting and natural causes, and changes in open surface water. We also examine the implications of these changes in terms of their impact on the vulnerability of the population (social system) to re-emergence of vector-borne diseases such as P. vivax Malaria.

Malaria prevalence per 100,000 from 1922. Malaria was especially prevalent in the Volga river valley and the South Caucasus. The area shaded with dots are part of the Volga river valley.

Published Project Papers

Worden J, de Beurs KM. 2020. Surface water detection in the Caucasus, International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation 91

Hirschfeld, K. 2020. Microbial insurgency: Theorizing global health in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review.