CDC to track illnesses in Atlanta

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using this summer's 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta to test a new computer system designed to track the ailments and illnesses that spectators may contract.

CDC officials believe the system will improve the agency's efforts in disease surveillance

CDC and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) jointly developed the Olympic Health Information System to track the 30,000 cases of injuries and illnesses that Olympic officials estimate will occur during the two-week event.

Spectators, members of the media and athletes will have access to 120 medical clinics set up at the numerous events located in Atlanta and surrounding areas. Reports detailing the ailments and the kinds of people who are visiting the clinics will be faxed to CDC's medical data center in the agency's Atlanta headquarters. CDC employees will then key the information into the agency's IBM Corp. mainframe.

Using software that was developed over the last year for epidemiology purposes, CDC will issue reports each day detailing the injuries and illnesses that have occurred and break them down by age, sex, venue site and other categories. The reports will be in English and French.

"By looking at these daily reports, it will give us a flavor of how well we're doing in helping people" and spreading the word if an illness breaks out, said Dr. Scott Wetterhall, acting director of the Division of Surveillance and Epidemiology at CDC.

About 35 CDC employees have been assigned to work on gathering and interpreting the data, including statisticians and physicians who have worked on the highly publicized and deadly Ebola virus and the Hanta Virus, a disease that attacks the lungs and was first reported in the Western United States.

But none of the illnesses expected in Atlanta will be that serious. In keeping with Atlanta's nickname as "Hotlanta," CDC officials expect most of the illnesses recorded will be heat-related. Other ailments expected to show up are those related to food poisonings, water-borne illnesses and possibly sexually transmitted diseases.

CDC officials believe the system will help improve the way CDC's information technology systems collect and analyze data. For example, Wetterhall said, CDC's surveillance staff generally wanted detailed diagnoses on many people, while clinicians wanted a lot of demographic information on individuals. CDC and clinicians compromised on a set of four categories for diagnoses so that officials would not have to interpret a clinician's written descriptions.

"We're always looking at ways we can improve health-information gathering," Wetterhall said, "and as we get into other areas of surveillance, one hopes lessons learned with developing this information system will help us improve."

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