Thursday, March 10, 2011

Global Surveillance System Aims to Prevent Pandemics

    Global Surveillance System Aims to Prevent Pandemics
  • Online data mapping could soon play a vital role in preventing transmission of deadly diseases from animals to humans.
  • Online data mapping could soon play a vital role in preventing transmission of deadly diseases from animals to humans.Zoonomic diseases are a scourge upon humanity—from bats with SARS to swine with flu—but timely information could prevent them from making the leap from animals to humans. A new online tracking system and surveillance technology might be the best arsenal yet in defending humanity from wildlife pathogens.

    Predict's map pinpoints possible "hot spots" and lists the latest disease alerts from around the world. (Source: USAID) 
    The main goal of the Predict project, initiated by a group of researchers during the 2009 swine flu outbreak and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to detect new diseases at the source before they can infect people and explode to pandemic proportions. The researchers have developed a surveillance tool, called SMART (Strategic, Measurable, Adaptive, Responsive, and Targeted), that is designed to pinpoint pathogens early in the game.
    The system will patrol about 50,000 Websites searching for information on new diseases, alerts from the World Health Organization, discussions by disease experts, wildlife reports and regional news. That information can then be mapped and mined to locate any disease "hot spots."

    Users can check Predict's map of the world, click on a "pin" in a trouble zone—an area where an outbreak of anthrax has been detected, for instance—and link to more detailed information about what's going on there. Beneath the map, a window of scrolling reports presents a running list of potential danger: "Concerned about possible cases of transmission of rabies in Michoacán" ... "Thai health authorities on high alert of bird flu."

    The "pins" indicate a potential zoonomic threat, in this case, bovine anthrax! (Source: USAID) 
    The Predict team, which is working with partners around the globe to keep on top of animal diseases, says that such a monitoring system could have enabled health officials to detect the H1N1 virus while it was still confined to pigs. Access to information and tools to properly interpret that information are essential to preventing pathogens from infecting humans. But the real trick is to acquire that information in a timely way and then share it promptly among researchers and medical professionals.
    Clicking on a pin reveals more information. (Source: USAID)
    As Damien Joly, an associate director of wildlife health monitoring for the Wildlife Conservation Society, told the New York Times, "It doesn't do public health much good to collect data and let it sit while it awaits publication."

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