Worldwide computing resources to fight the malaria epidemiology

08 November 2005

Malaria causes about 500 million clinical attacks each year, and over a million deaths, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. As well as causing this enormous burden of acute illness, malaria is a major factors inhibiting economic development in endemic countries, which have per capita GDP growth rates in of 0.25-1.3% points lower than those in industrialized countries. It has its greatest effects amongst the poorest Africans, aggravating social inequity.

Simulation models of the transmission dynamics and health effects of malaria are an important tool for malaria control. They can be used to help determine optimal strategies for delivering mosquito nets, chemotherapy; or vaccines, which are currently under development and testing.

The Swiss Tropical Institute (STI) has developed a computer model for malaria epidemiology and harnessed its in-house PC capacity, about 40 machines, to do preliminary studies. But far more computing power is required to validate such models and to adequately simulate the full range of interventions and transmission patterns relevant for malaria control in Africa. This is the context in which was carried out the Africa@home project, the goal of which is to increase the computing resources available for malaria epidemiology modeling by a factor of 100 or more, compared to what is available to STI today. This can be achieved by adapting the STI's computer model so that it can run on an open-source platform called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), technology available at the Grid computer lab at CERN. This will allow the modeling program to be downloaded from a public website by thousands of individuals around the world, who are prepared to donate idle time on their PCs to this cause.

Africa@home, an interdisciplinary project, is the result of a partnership between CERN, the University of Geneva, the Swiss Tropical Institute, ICVolunteers and Informaticiens sans frontières (ISF). Financed by the Geneva International Academic Network (GIAN), the project also works with the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie and its Campus numériques francophones.

The implementation of Africa@home involved intercultural exchanges through the participation of two cyber-volunteers from African Universities, recruited through the CyberVolunteers Program.

Bakary Sagara, who teaches Computer Sciences at the University of Bamako, spent two and a half months as a member of the Africa@home team at CERN. "It is a good thing for the African continent to be involved in this kind of project, as we move from observers to actors," points out Bakary. Having studied in Russia some ten years ago, he know more or less what to expect, but still felt there was a need to adapt: "Even though I was very well received by the CERN and Grid team, this experience still required a certain capacity to adapt on my part."
When asked what advise he would give to future cyber-volunteers, he underlines: "Europe is different." It is therefore important that one is well prepared for such an experience from a psychological point of view." He further advises: "such an experience represents a commitment, first for the project, but also some sacrifices as one does not come here for tourism."

For François Grey, one of the project coordinators, this exchange has been very enlightening: "The unique thing about Africa@home is that it involves Africans. I learned a lot from William and Bakary. In particular with respect to their thinking and way of doing things, but also about the every-day life of Africans who live in regions where it is rare to find anyone who has not had malaria."

Created by Bakary and other team members, the web site of the project has been launched and can be seen at http://africa-at-home.web.cern.ch.

A continuation of the Africa@home project is planned for 2006. VK / NG

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