Halting outbreaks before they hit

U. ILLINOIS (US) — A new biosurveillance program is expected to catch illness outbreaks and develop strategies to address them before they happen.

Typically, local clinics send reports of illnesses and symptoms to state and national organizations like the Centers for Disease Control, but with this method, “the local people who are collecting the data often don’t see the results until it is too late to take any action,” says Ian Brooks, leader of the Health Sciences Group at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

“Although there are existing systems that collect information on infectious diseases, they tend to be top down.”

By contrast, they system, called Indicator, is driven by the local community and collects anonymized data from area schools, hospitals, and clinics.

When unusual patterns are detected by the analysis algorithm, the system pushes out an alert to team members and to the public health district, ensuring a quicker response time, Brooks says.

The tool has already proven its worth in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

During last fall’s shortages of H1N1 vaccine, it was able to detect unusual student absences and sent an alert, enabling the public health district to revise its distribution strategy to address the apparent outbreak among schoolchildren, says Awais Vaid, an epidemiologist with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

“Our goal is that by the time all the data sources start coming in and are analyzed well, it will buy us at least a few days of time before the actual outbreak hits the community,” Vaid says.

“This system will give us some time to alert community providers to prepare ourselves for something abnormal so that we can plan and respond better.”

The next step is to include animal as well as human data. Combining human and animal data is important, Brooks says, because “something like 70 percent of infectious diseases have an animal component.

“Here’s an example—What is the first indicator of the summer that there will be a problem with West Nile? It’s when the crows start dropping out of the sky. Ignoring the animal side just doesn’t make sense.”

More news from University of Illinois: http://news.illinois.edu/