CDC Bolsters Public Health Network to Fight E. Coli Illness

To curb foodborne illness, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week announced that it will begin aggressively connecting state and local public health facilities with its national computer network, called PulseNet.

"The primary benefit of this effort for local governments' public health facilities is that it will allow them to benefit from our ability to draw clusters of related cases of foodborne illness that can be investigated as to the source of the illness and therefore better controlled," said Morris Potter, assistant director of the Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch of the Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases Division of the National Center for Infectious Diseases.

The effort is a reaction in part to serious outbreaks of food-related illness, such as the 1993 rash of illness associated with an out break of E. coli bacteria. Researchers estimate that with increased use of technology, they can trace contaminated food sources within 48 hours--a process that five years ago took weeks.

"The network rapidly calculates and associates results from different areas, such as a few cases of illness in Nebraska with other cases reported in West Virginia. That way, researchers can tell if cases are related," Potter said. "What has happened frequently in the past is that small clusters of cases have been reported but have appeared disperse, so specific information was never identified specifically but fell into a general category called sporadic illness."

State public laboratories in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas and Washington act as "area" laboratories and electronically submit information on bacterial illness to CDC, while other labs submit paper-based information. "We're trying to build a public health infrastructure with PulseNet," Potter said. But CDC wants to increase state access to its server, which was recently linked with databases maintained by the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.

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