The real Y2K bug

The Year 2000 rollover passed without the millennium bug biting a major computer system, but another pest has breathed disruption into offices across the country: the flu.

The effects of the flu may linger in sufferers, but the virus also provides a season full of headaches to the thousands of people nationwide who treat and track the illness. Hospitals and doctors' offices inundated with feverish patients in turn flood the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with data to gauge the level of a possible flu epidemic.

And the data has been staggering recently. For the week ending Jan. 8, epidemiologists in 31 states and the District of Columbia reported widespread influenza activity. Surprisingly, faxes, telephone calls, voice mail and paper records still serve as the foundation for reporting statistics, said Sam Groseclose, chief of the surveillance systems branch in the epidemiology program office at CDC.

"We want to get to a point where health information can be shared more easily," Groseclose said. "The CDC is working to boost its infrastructure in general and not just putting all of its money and resources to say where each case of the flu is in the country."

Four surveillance systems are in place to track diseases such as the flu and file data weekly that is summarized at www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/flu/weekly.htm. However, only two are using technology to report data, according to Lynnette Brammer, epidemiologist at the influenza branch of CDC.

One is the U.S. Influenza Sentinel Physicians Surveillance Network of more than 800 doctors in state health departments. "It's a basic Internet data entry system where [the doctors] punch in the numbers and it's transmitted to us," Brammer said. However, if the physicians aren't Internet-savvy or lack access, they can fax in a form, she said.

The other is the National Electronic Telecommunications System for Surveillance (NETSS), which provides weekly data on cases of nationally notifiable diseases, from all state health departments, New York City, Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories.

CDC recently developed a data management program that facilitates Internet transmission of NETSS data, Groseclose said. "About 25 states have moved from modem to Internet transmission on the new system, which has encrypted passkeys at both ends and offers a higher level of security," he said.

The future of flu surveillance data could be the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (NEDSS), which is included in the strategic plan of CDC's Information Resources Management Office for 2001-2005. "The long-term goal of NEDSS is to develop an electronic information system that automatically gathers health data from myriad sources on a real-time basis, monitors health of communities, performs ongoing analysis of trends, detects emerging health problems and provides information for setting public health policy," according to the plan.

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