Biological pathogens: Know your enemy

Officials at Illumitek Inc., a software company based in Herndon, Va., realize that the first step in responding to a biological attack is recognizing that one is under way.

The company's planned Public Health Alert and Response System will be able to detect a pathogen and predict its spread by using sophisticated algorithms to gauge several factors. The system will also be able to provide recommendations for actions to take.

Illumitek officials say the technology could help public health officials recognize disease outbreaks by analyzing over-the-counter and prescription sales of drugs that treat symptoms similar to those of highly contagious diseases. They could also analyze hospital traffic, such as inpatient admissions, emergency room usage and aggregated information on patient symptoms.

By bringing together such data, the system can identify the type of pathogen that might be spreading through a community. In essence, it could wave a red flag to public health officials that an infectious disease may be on the loose.

Based on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java, the system will be accessible via the Internet using a desktop computer or a wireless device. It can recommend protocols to follow if a deadly and highly communicable pathogen, such as smallpox or pneumonic plague, is detected. It can also link to a community's or hospital's inventory management system for antibiotics, vaccines and masks and can show the usage rate of such resources during an emergency.

"The quicker you can identify a situation, the quicker you can solve it," said Tony Crescenzo, Illumitek's chief executive officer.

The system could even take into account the impact of wind, traffic patterns, the geographic area and population density on the spread of a pathogen, said Taylor Stockwell, a company spokesman.

One application developed from the system is the "biohazard spread." Users can choose a geographic area and run scenarios of how long it would take for a disease such as smallpox to spread in an area that can be shown graphically on a map.

The tool can also be linked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's archived database of protocols to follow after a pathogen has been detected and is spreading -- such as volume of drugs needed, number of body bags and what hospital personnel must do.

Company officials are in discussions with several county governments and are looking to partner with a larger technology company with connections to CDC, Crescenzo said. The system could also tie into CDC's Health Alert Network, which will eventually be a communications backbone linking all public health organizations nationwide.

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