BiosecurityU.S. urgently needs better bioterrorism, disease tracking system

Published 19 September 2012

Nearly eleven years have passed since the fall 2001 bioterrorism-related anthrax attacks that shook the United States, killing five people and injuring seventeen, a leading bioterrorism expert says the country has still not learned its lesson; he says that current data mining approaches are passive and do not provide immediate solutions to the emergencies at hand, proposing instead an electronic, clinician-based reporting system which would have the capacity to limit the impact of a bioterrorism attack

Nearly eleven years have passed since the fall 2001 bioterrorism-related anthrax attacks that shook the United States, killing five people and injuring seventeen, but according to Alan Zelicoff, M.D., director of the Institute for Biosecurity at Saint Louis University, the country has still not learned its lesson.

The key requirement for mitigating the effects of a bioterrorism attack is early detection and diagnosis,” Zelicoff said. “Our current disease detection system is still hobbled by slow transfer of information to public health officials who might otherwise be able to determine unusual patterns or disease that suggests a bioterror attack.”

A Saint Louis University release reports that Zelicoff said current data mining approaches are passive and do not provide immediate solutions to the emergencies at hand. He proposes an electronic, clinician-based reporting system which would have the capacity to limit the impact of a bioterrorism attack. “We need a nationwide but locally-operated real-time disease surveillance system,” Zelicoff said. “Nobody knows about the local health system better than the local public health officials.”

Through this system clinicians will be able immediately to report the information about unusual or unusually severe set of symptoms to the local public health officials and update the local map where cases are being reported along with a time graph.

Zelicoff anticipates this real-time system will help speed up the initiation of an outbreak investigation and take immediate control of bioterror situations.

Before he joined SLU, Zelicoff helped develop a similar system called the Syndrome Reporting Information System (SYRIS) for ARES Corporation, a software development company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. SYRIS was in use from 2004 to 2011 by public health officials responsible for monitoring the health of more than 1.25 million people in Texas and countless agricultural animals and wildlife as well. While inexpensive compared to other disease surveillance systems, cutbacks in public health funding in recent years forced termination of real-time monitoring.

Public health agencies, supported by academic research and evaluation, should move ahead with testing available, novel real-time disease surveillance systems so as to be able to recognize not only bioterrorism threats, but to respond much more quickly to the naturally-occurring infectious diseases that we are certain to encounter,” Zelicoff said.

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