Virtual globes and geospatial health: the potential of new tools in the management and control of vector-borne diseases

The rapidly growing field of three-dimensional software modeling of the Earth holds promise for applications in the geospatial health sciences. Easy-to-use, intuitive virtual globe technologies such as Google Earth™ enable scientists around the world to share their data and research results in a visually attractive and readily understandable fashion without the need for highly sophisticated geographical information systems (GIS) or much technical assistance. This paper discusses the utility of the rapid and simultaneous visualization of how the agents of parasitic diseases are distributed, as well as that of their vectors and/or intermediate hosts together with other spatially-explicit information. The resulting better understanding of the epidemiology of infectious diseases, and the multidimensional environment in which they occur, are highlighted. In particular, the value of Google Earth™, and its web-based pendant Google Maps™, are reviewed from a public health view point, combining results from literature searches and experiences gained thus far from a multidisciplinary project aimed at optimizing schistosomiasis control and transmission surveillance in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the basic analytical capabilities of virtual globe applications are limited, we conclude that they have considerable potential in the support and promotion of the geospatial health sciences as a userfriendly, straightforward GIS tool for the improvement of data collation, visualization and exploration. The potential of these systems for data sharing and broad dissemination of scientific research and results is emphasized.