Efforts to develop real-time, web-based surveillance systems for evidence of biological and chemical terrorism are gaining steam and urgency because of the recent anthrax attacks around the country.
The federal government last year committed more than $48 million to several different biosurveillance projects under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Air Force and the Centers for Disease Control. But no national network currently exists. And Congress auditing arm, the General Accounting Office, this month called for a stronger commitment to biosurveillance.
"I think the advances in technology are enabling such a system, and it certainly is becoming more important now, so its receiving more focus," said David Siegrist, director of studies for countering biological terrorism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "I think there is more interest in Congress now, because of the recent attacks."
Indeed, a House of Representatives subcommittee had planned to hold a hearing dedicated entirely to biosurveillance last week, but postponed the hearing due to anthrax attacks on congressional office buildings.
The technology, known broadly as biosurveillance, aims at knitting together data from, for example, hospitals, pharmacies, state epidemiological laboratories and potentially even supermarkets, that could quickly reveal unusual spikes in the incidence of different kinds of illnesses.
"In my mind, I would see a health-awareness system where, any day, the surgeon general of the United States could call up an image of the United States and have displayed for him any outbreaks of naturally occurring or deliberate disease," Siegrist said.
A dramatic run on sales of over-the-counter flu medicine in New York City, for example, combined with a corresponding boost in the number of people visiting health facilities complaining of flu-like symptoms, would alert health officials that an act of biological terrorism could be responsible.
The federal government projects currently under way tackle different pieces of the growing biosurveillance puzzle.
Four of the projects are being conducted by DARPA in conjunction with two universities and two institutions. One, called the Enhanced Consequence Management Planning and Support System -- ENCOMPASS, for short -- tracked public health conditions in the Washington, D.C., area immediately before and after the inauguration of President George W. Bush earlier this year.
Other projects -- one of the DARPA efforts and the Centers for Disease Controls program -- deal with setting standards for medical data exchanges, and another focuses on figuring out ways to scale small pilot projects to cover the nation.
In addition, cities like New York and Boston have started their own biosurveillance networks, as have officials in the state of New Mexico.
Nationally, the U.S. currently conducts biosurveillance "by serendipity," said Dr. Judith Brillman, research director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of New Mexicos School of Medicine.
Brillman, who is involved in both the state effort and a DARPA project, said recent attacks have injected new vigor into the effort. Just a few weeks after the first case of anthrax was reported, DARPA held meetings for its biosurveillance projects in Virginia, where there "was a little more of an understanding that this was a real problem, versus an academic problem," Brillman said. "There was a renewed sense of urgency, and more of a sense of mission."