Magazine article National Defense

Bio-Threats 1

Magazine article National Defense

Bio-Threats 1

Article excerpt

* The public health community's dream is to make the arrival and spread of communicable diseases as easy to predict and track as the weather.

Just as a meteorologist spots the seeds of a hurricane off the African coast, and begins to plot its possible path as it makes its way toward the Caribbean, a global bio-surveillance network would allow officials to detect a bio-weapon or the emergence of a deadly flu virus in China and track it as it spreads throughout the world. Measures could then be taken to quickly develop and distribute vaccines.

Despite the onset of the information age, where a doctor in Asia could theoretically inform a centralized information clearinghouse on the other side of the world of a new virus within seconds, realizing this dream is years away, experts at a recent National Defense Industrial Association Biosurveillance conference said.

Making diseases as predictable as the weather is a lofty goal, but the weather analogy is an imperfect one, said Steve Bennett, director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Biosurveillance Integration Center. To start, the medical community doesn't have all the prediction models that weather watchers can use to plug data into. They just don't exist.

"Prediction is a pretty difficult thing to achieve," he said. "Realtime situational awareness, I think we can get close."

Congress established the center in 2007 to pull together the efforts of 112 federal agencies and departments that are charged with tracking diseases. Its goal is to "rapidly identify, characterize, localize and track a biological event of national concern; integrate and analyze data relating to human health, animal, plant, food, water, and environmental domains; and to disseminate alerts and pertinent information."

The Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture are all among the entities that track diseases.

"I think there was this idea in 2007 when that law was stood up ... there was this thought that there were these databases all around the federal government and the states and all we had to do was put $100 million into an IT system and hook it all together, and out comes wisdom," Bennett said.

The databases don't exist, or they exist in spreadsheets on different systems, and they are not structured at all, he said. Five years after the law was passed, Bennett still spends the bulk of his time visiting other agencies to keep tabs on what is happening.

"It is people and relationships. I wish there was a more technical solution, but that is kind of the way it is," he said.

As far as developing a real-time global picture of what diseases are spreading and where, there seem to be more questions than answers.

"Right now the sum of biosusurveillance is based on ambiguous data. And to go from ambiguous data to a decision is a very difficult thing to do," said C. Nicole Rosenzweig, a research biologist at the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland.

How do analysts take something that is at some level, research, and assess it as though we have complete confidence in it? she asked. "A lot of research will have to go into this," she added. …

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