Texas links agencies to Health Alert Network

Texas Health Alert Network

Calling it a "work in progress," Texas officials have launched a statewide electronic health communications network that so far connects 64 public health organizations in an effort to improve surveillance and reporting of infectious diseases and possible bioterrorist attacks.

The state's Health Alert Network (HAN), in development for three years, is among the first such system in the nation to be launched, state health officials said in an Aug. 9 teleconference sponsored by Dell Computer Corp., which supplied much of the hardware.

"Hours and days could mean the difference between 10 and tens of thousands of casualties," said Michael Mastrangelo, co-founder of Texas HAN.

HAN is a nationwide initiative led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 1999 to bolster secure, high-speed, two-way communication among the federal government and states about emerging infectious diseases, environmental health dangers, potential bioterrorist attacks, and other surveillance and laboratory data.

CDC has provided about $90 million in funding and technical assistance to more than three dozen state health agencies and metropolitan health departments, and three centers for public health preparedness to develop their statewide systems.

Health officials have previously said that across the nation, about 10 percent of local public health departments do not have e-mail and up to 40 percent do not have high-speed Internet access.

Texas HAN began with about $15 million in state funding and portions of $52 million awarded by the federal government this year, said Wayne Farrell, district director of the Bell County Public Health District, located in the central part of the state.

Mastrangelo estimated that about half of the local health departments in Texas didn't have continuous Internet access. Each of the 64 sites, which represent only a part of the health system, is now equipped with Dell PowerEdge 500SC servers and up to five Dell desktop or laptop computers.

The network allows sites to maintain their link via automatic redundant connections if the main high-speed connection fails, he said.

Eventually, state officials plan to equip all public health centers, hospitals, clinics and law enforcement agencies, meaning that 90 percent of the state population will be covered by the network, Mastrangelo said.

However, one challenge is persuading the state's political leaders to continue investing in the telecommunications infrastructure so the network can grow. Officials said funding is being sought.

Another major benefit of the state HAN is being able to tap into training and distance-learning resources. Mastrangelo said there are plans to double the number of sites from the current 17 that have interactive two-way videoconferencing. He said officials are working with university medical centers and other groups to supply course content now that the communications network is in place.

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