Biosentinel spreads health alerts

A coalition of private-sector, nonprofit and research organizations in Indiana has launched a technology model for the early detection of intentionally released pathogens and other disease outbreaks.

Information would be relayed through a secure Web site (www.biosentinel.net) to the appropriate national, state and local public health and emergency management agencies, municipal governments and local emergency rooms, clinics and doctor's offices on a subscription basis.

Todd Bracken, chief executive officer of Bracken Foster and Associates LLC, an Indianapolis-based management group that oversees the process, said the patent-pending Biosentinel product would provide proactive notification — via e-mail, pagers or telephone calls — of a possible outbreak much earlier than how diseases are currently detected and reported. Quicker notification means that authorities can take faster action to deal with a possible outbreak or conduct a better investigation, he said.

"We're to [the public health and emergency management communities] what the Doppler radar is to the weatherman," he said, adding that development began earlier this year. "We're able to see waves of even naturally occurring bio-events like a strong outbreak of the flu...on up to a bioterrorist attack."

The technology tracks sales of certain over-the-counter medications at major pharmacy and grocery chains and other discounters. Bracken said these statistics are the leading indicators of possible pathogenic outbreaks.

CVS Corp., a national pharmaceutical chain, has agreed to participate, and other retailers and discounters are interested in providing information, Bracken said, adding that such data collection would not violate any federal privacy regulations. Data is collected every night and analyzed through algorithms.

If a problem is detected, Bracken said subscribers would receive a text message reading something like "a level on breach of X medical category within ZIP code 65212." Subscribers could then log on to the Web site and see the visual impact of the breach and supplemental information would be provided.

Different messages would be sent to different types of subscribers. For example, a doctor's office may receive a message indicating that if patients exhibit particular symptoms, they should be triaged differently and tests should be ordered, he said.

Bracken said the technology, available for the past two months, can be easily and quickly replicated in other states.

Pricing would be based on the geographical area being monitored, he said. For example, a county government subscribing to Biosentinel could obtain information in a particular ZIP code, at a regional level or at a state level. Bracken didn't mention pricing, but the Biosentinel Web site indicates subscriptions "starting as low as $15,000, [and] unlimited site licenses are available for state, region/MSA, county and local areas."

Bracken said he believed such a service was cost-effective, adding that it would be equivalent to the cost of an intern working in city government. "I quite frankly wish I could give it away," he said of the service.

The technology was developed in partnership with the Hudson Institute, an applied research firm; Indiana's Health Industry, a nonprofit private-sector initiative to advance the state's health sector; and the Indiana Technology Partnership, a nonprofit economic development group for the technology industry.

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