System lands role in biowar

A consortium of high-tech companies, working with the Air Force surgeon general and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are deploying an early warning system that will detect biological terrorism using the Internet to analyze data and spot deadly health threats.

The system, the Lightweight Epidemiology Advanced Detection and Emergency Response System (LEADERS), has been in development for several years, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the system was deployed at various hospitals nationwide and at large sporting events, including the World Series in October, to help identify possible bio.terrorism attacks.

Health workers in hospitals enter data into the system about their patients' symptoms. The system searches for unusual increases in similar symptoms that crop up in a specific area. CDC and local health officials investigate any spikes to determine if they are naturally occurring or if they are a result of a bioterrorist attack.

At major sporting events, including the January Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., and the World Series in Phoenix, Ariz., and New York City, officials used the system to track health problems reported by people seeking medical attention. In case of a biological attack, the system theoretically could have marked common symptoms and matched what those patients ate or did or where they sat in the stadium to determine the cause of the illness.

Dr. Tracee Treadwell, a member of CDC's Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program, said LEADERS has uncovered infectious disease outbreaks, but none linked to bioterrorism. During the Super Bowl, the system detected a case of meningitis and a weak wave of influenza at nearby Florida hospitals.

"What we're trying to do is provide an early warning system to say there is a reason for us to take a better look at this, given the geography and the community," said Tim Hannon, a vice president at EYT (formerly Ernst & Young Technologies), which hosts LEADERS.

Other consortium companies include Oracle Corp., which provides its latest database technology; Idaho Technology Inc., which manufactures a portable diagnostic device; and ScenPro Inc., a Dallas-based member of the consortium that developed the technology.

Brig. Gen. Klaus Schafer, assistant surgeon general for medical readiness, science and technology for the Air Force, said a predecessor to LEADERS was responsible for spotting an outbreak of salmonella poisoning among U.S. troops stationed at the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia two years ago, and it pinpointed the source of the problem.

"The CDC has been using this for event surveillance...but we want to make it as usable by whoever has a need for the technology," Schafer said.

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