The paper examines the possible contributions to be made by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to studies on human and animal trypanosomiasis in Africa. The epidemiological characteristics of trypanosomiasis are reviewed in the light of the formula for the basic reproductive rate or number of vector-borne diseases. The paper then describes how important biological characteristics of the vectors of trypanosomiasis in West Africa may be monitored using data from the NOAA series of meteorological satellites. This will lead to an understanding of the spatial distribution of both vectors and disease. An alternative, statistical approach to understanding the spatial distribution of tsetse, based on linear discriminant analysis, is illustrated with the example of Glossina morsitans in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tanzania. In the case of Zimbabwe, a single climatic variable, the maximum of the mean monthly temperature, correctly predicts the pre-rinderpest distribution of tsetse over 82% of the country; additional climatic and vegetation variables do not improve considerably on this figure. In the cases of Kenya and Tanzania, however, another variable, the maximum of the mean monthly Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, is the single most important variable, giving correct predictions over 69 % of the area; the other climatic and vegetation variables improve this to 82 % overall. Such statistical analyses can guide field work towards the correct biological interpretation of the distributional limits of vectors and may also be used to make predictions about the impact of global change on vector ranges. Examples are given of the areas of Zimbabwe which would become climatically suitable for tsetse given mean temperature increases of 1, 2 and 3 °Centigrade. Five possible causes for sleeping sickness outbreaks are given, illustrated by the analysis of field data or from the output of mathematical models. One cause is abiotic (variation in rainfall), three are biotic (variation in vectorial potential, host immunity, or parasite virulence) and one is historical (the impact of explorers, colonizers and dictators). The implications for disease monitoring, in order to anticipate sleeping sickness outbreaks, are briefly discussed. It is concluded that present data are inadequate to distinguish between these hypotheses. The idea that sleeping sickness outbreaks are periodic (i.e. cyclical) is only barely supported by hard data. Hence it is even difficult to conclude whether the major cause of sleeping sickness outbreaks is biotic (which, in model situations, tends to produce cyclical epidemics) or abiotic. The conclusions emphasize that until we understand more about the variation in space and time of tsetse and trypanosomiasis distribution and abundance we shall not be in a position to benefit from the advances made by GIS. The potential is there, however, to re-introduce the spatial and temporal elements into epidemiological studies that are currently often neglected.
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