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Space and health: Any connection?

By Adie Vanessa Offiong
on August 29, 2017

I’m just back from three days of intense but fruitful conversations on ‘Strengthening Space Cooperation for Global Health’ at the World Health Organisation (WHO) office in Geneva, Switzerland (August 23 – 25, 2017), with the crux hinged on resiliency and interoperability.

The event which was a joint conference organized by WHO, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) – the UN agency responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space and assisting developing countries in using space science and technology, and the Government of Switzerland with support from the European Space Agency (ESA) came up following an agreement that a dedicated flagship event was needed in 2017 “to review and consider space cooperation for global health related activities, and to bring together the space and the global health communities to also explore potential future projects and collaborations”.

This was in a bid to strengthen the ongoing processes in the lead up to UNISPACE+50 and to address the thematic priority focusing on global health, with the aim to identify gaps, needs, opportunities and recommendations for inclusion into the report prepared for UNISPACE+50 on this thematic priority. UNISPACE+50 marks the Golden Jubilee anniversary in 2018, anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE I), which was held in Vienna, Austria in 1968.

The UNOOSA website also states that “The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) at its fifty-eight session in June 2015 endorsed a plan of work (A/AC.105/L.297) for UNISPACE+50 to be undertaken by the Office for Outer Space Affairs, the Committee, and the subsidiary bodies of the Committee.”

My instant reaction upon reading the conference title, was where in the world do these two connect? How do they relate? What do they have in common or to do with one another?

But then I said, “hang on, wait a minute! How can you ask about their relationship? What technology helps with weather forecasting and those cyclone forecasts you hear on the news? Yes, this is weather and maybe environment but really, where do they connect for global health? In this regard, what health forecast have you heard about in Nigeria? Or what health campaigns do you know have happened in Nigeria based on health forecast?”

I decided to apply to have these questions answered, and to also explore ways in which I could use the lessons learned in the course of my work as a journalist and an advocate for healthcare for all regardless of the location.

UNISPACE+50 has seven thematic priorities (TP) centred on how space technologies are being used to fulfill the mandates of the UN. The conference in Geneva focused on TP5 after which it was titled.

UNOOSA Director, Ms. Simonetta Di Pippo explained that activities of the agency are channeled to meet the requests of member states who are also telling UNOOSA not to tell them what to do or how to do it but to convince them on why they need to invest in space activities in the first place. She said more states in the last three years have been asking to become members, which has led to an increase in membership.

Hans Troedsson, assistant director general, acting in-charge for WHO’s Health Systems and Innovation Cluster, gave on the site examples from his 27 years in the WHO. He said, “we don’t want to make the same mistakes as we did with the MDGs” adding that outer space technology “offers appropriate and affordable tools which we need to use to achieve UHC which is one of the priorities in public health today and tomorrow.” He added that  it is key is to have communication where there are more skilled staff in the health sector. Troedsson also said  it is ignorant to say space has nothing to do with health. “It is not a given, it is something we have to explore and put in some intellectual capacity looking at what means and tools, cooperation and how we can use them.”

While participants from the West mostly recounted successes from their experiences with space technology in health, the successes for developing countries weren’t so resounding.

In India, although the technology has been welcome, putting it to use hasn’t been without hitches as Chandan Kumar of Save the Children, India acknowledged.

According to Kumar, the lack of proper infrastructure in the rural and interior villages as well as the massive gap in the availability of medical staff in such areas, pose the greatest challenge to the efficiency of the technology.

Kumar, who was optimistic that space technology if properly channeled would bring about a turnaround in global health, advised that for the technology to improve the provision of healthcare services, “we should identify context specific solutions and adapt the technology based on the real needs of the community”.

As remarkable as this event was, the conversations and participants need to be broadened and involve more actors like global health practitioners, young app developers and the media whose field and technical experiences would be valuable inputs to move the impact of the campaign forward.

Dr. Prestige Makanga, a lecturer at Surveying and Geomatics Department, of Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University, said the idea isn’t one he has sold to the government. He said, “My work has been done in the context of a clinical trial that is still ongoing. No results have been shared with the government.”

Responding to a question on how data received differed from the realities on the ground and how he has worked around resolving the disparities, Makanga said, “I only used a derivative of satellite data in the form of precipitation and flooding. These were historical records and were validated from newspaper reports.”

Just as some of the recommendations at the end of the conference were arguing for more inclusion in the conversation and simplifying the technology to be more accessible, Kumar added that it also had to be user friendly.

After being in a room  full of scientists and data experts for several days in a row, I can pretend to have some level of expertise as I watch the news about how Texas prepared for hurricane Harvey, one of the few hurricanes identified by a male name 🙂 . I recognize the satellite maps and geotags (a term I first heard at this forum) and suddenly feel like I’m on familiar territory as I can see how space data is directly helping to preserve lives and prevent what may otherwise have been an (even) more disastrous event without pre-knowledge.



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