Leveraging Space Technologies to Achieve SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-being

The United Nations embraced a global call to action in 2015, to protect the environment with a comprehensive framework for global sustainable development. This motion birthed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 interwoven global goals meticulously designed to balance social, economic, and environmentally sustainable development across the world by 2030.

The SDGs aim to be relevant to all nations – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the environment and tackling climate change. They have a strong focus on ending hunger, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and discrimination against women and disadvantaged populations in particular so that no one is left behind.

SDG 3 –  Good health and well-being

SDG 3 aims to achieve comprehensive health coverage that gives unbiased access to healthcare services for everyone. The goal addresses global health issues ranging from the death of newborns, infants and children under five, to universal health coverage and access to quality and affordable medicines and vaccines. It also emphasises the need for more research and development, increased health financing, and the strengthened capacity of all countries in health risk reduction and management.

To measure the progress of SDG 3,  the United Nations has since developed 13 targets and 28 indicators. These targets are further divided into nine outcome targets and the four methods of achieving the targets.

The nine outcome targets include:

  • Reduction of maternal mortality; 
  • Ending all preventable deaths of children  under 5 years of age; 
  • Fight communicable diseases; 
  • Ensure reduction of mortality from non-communicable diseases and promote mental health; 
  • Prevent and treat substance abuse; 
  • Reduce road injuries and deaths; 
  • Grant universal access to sexual and reproductive care, 
  • Family planning and education; achieve universal health coverage; and
  • Reduce illnesses and deaths from hazardous chemicals and pollution. 

The four methods to achieving SDG 3 targets include:

  • Implement the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in all countries; 
  • Support research, development and universal access to affordable vaccines and medicines for the communicable and non-communicable diseases that primarily affect developing countries;
  • Increase health financing and support health workforce in developing countries; and
  • Improve early warning systems for global health risks.
How space technologies can help achieve the mandate of the SDG – 3

Space-based technologies and data have the potential to contribute directly or indirectly to achieving global health objectives. For example, data acquired from remote-sensing technologies [earth observation satellites, drones, etc.] is used to deliver medical supplies, monitor disease spread patterns, understand environmental triggers for the spread of diseases, predict risk areas and define regions that require disease-control planning.

Hypergravity and Microgravity Research

Hypergravity, conditions where the force of gravity exceeds that on the surface of the earth, and microgravity, a minimal gravity force, like on the International Space Station (ISS), can be used to advance research in biology, medicine, material science and fluid dynamics.

Some medical research are best performed in microgravity conditions in space, aboard the space station. For example, one of the major effects of weightlessness is losing muscle and bone mass [osteoporosis]. In the absence of gravity, there is no weight load on the back and leg muscles, so they begin to weaken; this phenomenon presents a unique opportunity for research into developing drugs for osteoporosis.

Furthermore, in microgravity conditions, researchers can grow protein crystals that are larger and formed more orderly than crystals grown on earth. Many researchers, including several from commercial entities, are already using the unique crystallisation environment onboard the ISS National Laboratory to advance their research and development to provide cures for progressive muscular disorders such as  Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD),  Becker Muscular Dystrophy (BMD), etc.

The Image-Guided Autonomous Robot (IGAR), a surgical instrument inspired by the Canadian Space Agency’s heavy-lifting and maintenance robotic arms on the ISS, has led to the development of an advanced tool to provide more accurate and less invasive identification and treatment of breast tumours in the MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. The IGAR will provide increased precision and dexterity, resulting in more accurate and less invasive procedures. IGAR is currently in the second phase of clinical trials in Hamilton, Ontario, and Quebec City.

Also, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), under the Access to Space for All Initiative and its partners, have designed opportunities to conduct microgravity experiments on earth through a range of programmes which include: DropTES, HyperGES, Bartolomeo, China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), and the Dream Chaser.

Health delivery systems 

Infectious diseases such as Ebola, COVID-19, and influenza, which spread rapidly and can lead to high mortality rates, especially in remote areas, justify the need to invest more in space-based emergency delivery systems. Space-based systems can help to reduce or contain the spread in many ways. Global positioning systems (GPS), for instance, can be used to monitor infected patients and transportation of medical supplies in real-time. Similarly, global navigation satellite systems can be used for large-scale disinfection efforts through unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). For example, China utilised the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System for these purposes to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, telemedicine during a disease outbreak can help assess and treat the affected people and minimise the number of people unnecessarily exposed to these diseases at medical facilities. 

Additionally, the use of telemedicine systems can protect medical personnel. For example, the Ebola crisis signalled the lack of adequate infrastructure, which contributed to the infection and death of several medical staff. Therefore, health applications supported by space-based systems are particularly vital in Africa, given the continent’s low doctor-patient ratio and inadequate medical facilities.

However, space-based technologies are being utilised across African states to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and provide adequate medical supplies to local clinics. For instance, in Ghana and Rwanda, Zipline, an American medical product delivery company, provided access to medical products. However, due to poor roads and the lack of refrigerated vehicles needed to store the medical supplies, Zipline employed drones to support the delivery of medical supplies to doctors in local clinics.

Zipline uses drones to deliver medical products to about 2,500 hospitals and health facilities in Rwanda and Ghana. Source: Zipline
Disease surveillance systems

Space-based technologies are a must-have to adequately collect, analyse, and interpret first-hand information from the field in different regions to devise early warning systems of any impending disease outbreak. For example, eHealth Africa supported the polio eradication initiative in Nigeria by collecting geo-spatial data to create more accurate micro plans for the most affected areas- Northern and South-West Nigeria to ensure that all the settlements were adequately covered. The mapping was conducted through a combination of remote sensing, satellite imagery, primary data collection, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Using the derived map as a foundation, eHealth Africa, alongside its partners, planned and tracked immunisation activities across 140,000 settlements.

The improvement made during the data collection phase made it possible to identify the different points of interest, such as health facilities and buildings that can serve as vaccination sites.  eHealth Africa has since open-sourced this data so that individuals and organisations can access the data and utilise it to provide solutions.

Also, to effectively monitor the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria, Observatory Earth Analytics (OEA) Consults developed a robust system for mapping the spatial spread of the virus, tracking cases, and integrating a live prediction model to predict the rate of transmission and case confirmation with an 80% accuracy.

The global fight against mosquito-borne diseases

Eradicating Malaria, Zika, Dengue, and other mosquito-borne diseases have been the global goal for ages. However, unlike the traditional reactionary methods of mass-producing vaccines and insecticides, companies are now leveraging space technologies [e.g. drones] to map mosquito-infested sites, so they can be sprayed to kill larvae before they mature.

In addition, WeRobotics, a technology company with offices in Wilmington and Geneva, has teamed up with the Insect Pest Control Lab of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to develop autonomous drones that will release millions of sterile male mosquitoes over areas where mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika fever are endemic.

The sterile insect technique is an environmentally-friendly pest control method involving the mass-rearing and sterilisation of a target pest using radiation, followed by the controlled area-wide release of the sterile males by air over defined areas, where they mate with wild females resulting in no offspring and a declining pest population.

Furthermore, Zzapp, a Jerusalem-based company, utilises artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse satellite imagery and various data on topography, climate, and local mosquito species to tailor optimal strategies for each region threatened by the illness. It then breaks down these strategies into clear and manageable tasks. Zzapp’s end-to-end solution, from planning through monitoring to validation, will be tested this year in a series of experiments in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, and Zanzibar.

According to UNOOSA, countries are also leveraging space-based technologies to:

  • Address issues related to vision, cognition and disability assistance;
  • Monitor factors that affect human health and well-being, like air quality and traffic; and
  • Support health promotion and disease prevention through the use of wearable monitoring devices.
Are we on track to meet all the targets of SDG- 3?

Success in this goal would be largely dependent on how sustainability is defined in the global context. Different regions of the world might have different definitions, which would significantly impact how the targets are interpreted and the methods adopted for implementing those plans. Since the SDGs are global goals, sustainability, therefore, needs to be uniform across the continent. And this calls for more intergovernmental relations and the adoption of feasible continent-wide plans – broken down into smaller bits- to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Also, the SDGs are interconnected goals, and as such, improvement in a particular goal would be felt across the board, and sadly, the same thing would be felt if a goal does not receive the same attention from everyone. All the 17 goals must be tackled together and not considered as separate projects. For example, in the case of  SDG 3, global health cannot be improved if we don’t equally address the root cause of the problem. Why should we spend so much money on research and development of drugs for diseases without intensifying efforts to try and lift people out of poverty or ensure clean cities globally?

Read about Leveraging Space Technologies to Achieve SDG 2 – Zero Hunger.


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