Uganda rainfall study sheds light on baby brain swelling

(Credit: Getty Images)

Even though many of the global climate models predict an increase in rainfall for Uganda, over the past 34 years, rainfall in the area has decreased by around 12 percent, according to new research.

Rainfall levels in Uganda impact agriculture, food security, wildlife habitats, and regional economics as well as the prevalence of certain diseases.

“We didn’t plan to study the climate,” says Steven J. Schiff, professor of engineering in the neurosurgery, engineering science and mechanics, and physics departments at Penn State. “But we realized we needed the information to study infections. The biggest need for infant brain surgery in the developing world is infection-caused hydrocephalus.”

While there are congenital cases of hydrocephalus, infectious disease causes the majority of cases in Uganda. Infections are the cause of large numbers of infant deaths during the first four weeks of life and half those deaths take place in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We can’t track the disease causes unless we take the major environmental conditions into account.”

Children who don’t die often develop hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluids in the brain cavities that can cause head deformation and cognitive deficits. It is estimated that there are 100,000 to 200,000 such cases each year in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Previous research showed that intermediate levels of rainfall are associated with peaks in the number of cases of hydrocephalus,” Schiff says. “We had to take a careful look at rainfall. We had county-level information, but we had to get down to the village level.”

Paddy Ssentongo, assistant research professor at the Center for Neural Engineering and Engineering Science and Mechanics, worked with several government agencies in Uganda to establish a collaboration.

Using census data, election data and village boundary information, combined with weather and climate data from the African desk of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, researchers managed to fuse village details with satellite rainfall data over the past 34 years. Their findings appear in Scientific Reports.

“Uganda is a developing country dependent on rain-fed agriculture,” Ssentongo says. “If it depends on agriculture then you look at rainfall. If rainfall isn’t dependable, farmers lose crops.”

Another consideration, according to Ssentongo, is that understanding the fluctuations in rainfall can help municipalities and national governments plan infrastructure to improve growth and the economy.

Resilience needs to be built into agricultural planning to adjust to the decrease in rainfall in the greater Horn of Africa over these past four decades. In addition, the drier climate affects the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Southwest Uganda and the Bwindi Forest is the last habitat of the mountain gorilla.

For these reasons, the Ugandan government was interested in fully understanding the climate data and supplied detailed geospatial data so they could have location-specific climate data for planning.

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Researchers found that the rainfall predicted for East Africa on a decadal scale by models using the effects of the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole didn’t account for as much of the rainfall fluctuations as expected for the past 34 years. That’s in part because the rainfall fluctuations fall during shorter timespans than decades.

Uganda has two rainy seasons, one from March to May and one from October to December. The rainy seasons have higher malaria rates, but are also related to a variety of bacterial and viral infections that have seasonal and rainfall related rates. Hydrocephalus also has a pattern related to the rainfall seasons which varies by location.

“With climate data at this level, we can pinpoint the address of every baby with hydrocephalus and correlate that to a square on the satellite rainfall maps,” Schiff says. “We can know how much rain had been falling on that address when the infant became ill.”

The researchers’ goals are to identify vulnerable areas for epidemic diseases, particularly neonatal sepsis and through this identification develop ways to prevent and treat these diseases.

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“We can’t track the disease causes unless we take the major environmental conditions into account,” Schiff says.

Other researchers are from the National Planning Authority and the Ugandan National Meteorological Authority, both of Kampala, Uganda; Boston University; and George Mason University. A US National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award to Schiff supported the work.

Source: Penn State