Research Briefs

Physical and social sciences unite against plague

Two rats crawling in a house.

Plague is transmitted from rodents to humans via fleas. In Uganda, plague cases rise during the rainy season, likely because plague-infested rat populations seek shelter in villages and come into contact with humans. (Image courtesy iStockphoto.com/ralphoto.)

NCAR scientists are collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help fight plague in Uganda in a project that merges physical and social sciences.

Plague, which is believed to have been responsible for the Black Death pandemic that swept Europe in the 14th century and killed more than 25 million people, is transmitted from rodents to humans via fleas. In Uganda, plague fluctuations appear to be closely tied to climate variability. Plague cases rise during the rainy season, likely because plague-infested rat populations seek shelter in villages and come into contact with humans.

NCAR’s Andy Monaghan, an atmospheric scientist, used the Weather Research and Forecasting model (WRF) to create a high-resolution climate data set for Uganda, where observational networks are sparse. “The climate data will be employed by CDC to develop an epidemiological model to predict plague outbreaks in Ugandan villages,” he explains.   

Predicting plague is the first step; making sure people in affected villages receive treatment is the second. NCAR’s Mary Hayden, a social scientist, is working with local health personnel in Uganda to train traditional healers to recognize plague cases, which are usually curable with antibiotics provided the drugs are administered quickly enough. Hayden and Monaghan will travel to Uganda in September 2010 to train traditional healers in rural northwest Uganda and deliver cell phones and bicycles that will allow the healers to call cases of plague into health clinics and retrieve antibiotics.

“This is a theme for many of our projects in NCAR’s Research Applications Laboratory,” Hayden says about the merging of climate modeling and social applications. “We’ve learned that you need to work concurrently with the physical and social sciences.” 

The research is funded by CDC.