CDC center aids SARS battle

In what could be seen as preparation for a bioterrorism attack, health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently activated a high-tech command center to track and respond to the outbreak of a potentially deadly respiratory virus that has spread across the world.

The rapid spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) prompted CDC officials last month to move into a new emergency operations center in Atlanta. Health officials deployed centralized data collection and communication tools to get a grasp on the mysterious disease, setting the stage for response to future natural or bioterrorist disease outbreaks.

"SARS is the most recent reminder that we must always be prepared for the unexpected," CDC Director Julie Gerberding said in testimony last week before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Suspected cases of SARS reached more than 2,700 last week and the disease has killed more than 100 people internationally, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, more than 150 people have been infected. SARS patients typically have a high fever and later develop a cough or difficulty breathing. The illness, believed to have originated in China, is spread through the air when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, according to CDC.

Until the medical community can develop a vaccine, CDC must find a way to contain the virus by quickly identifying and treating infected individuals.

The emergency operations center "promotes effective communication and collaboration amongst the operational teams that address different aspects of the outbreak, including domestic SARS case identification and tracking, international case identification and tracking, quarantine, infection control and others," said Dale Nordenberg, associate director for informatics and chief information officer at the National Center for Infectious Diseases within CDC.

CDC officials expect to take the same approach in the event of a bioterrorist attack. "The activation of the [emergency center] for SARS is providing CDC staff with experience to respond to a large, multinational health challenge and to do so within the framework of processes and protocols that promote rapid and effective communications and collaborations among many teams," said Nordenberg, who is also an information technology team co-leader for the SARS outbreak.

CDC officials most recently brought health professionals together at the operations center through videoconferencing to provide information and enhanced surveillance and infection control guidelines for SARS, Gerberding said.

"That wasn't possible before," said Kate Ruddon, spokeswoman for the CDC Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps form partnerships between corporations and CDC. "They had telephones and e-mail. This is a whole new wave of technology that makes that possible."

During the anthrax attacks in October 2001 in which five people died and 13 people were infected, Ruddon said CDC officials didn't have the central command capabilities they needed. "They were literally working out of an auditorium," she said. "It was really a makeshift kind of operation. That experience really defined what it was they needed."

An interim center was used last summer to manage the West Nile virus outbreak, and like the response to the anthrax attacks, officials set up camp in an auditorium. Card tables supported old computers, and phone lines and wires were strung across the room. Tom Buchsbaum, Dell Computer Corp.'s vice president of federal systems, described it as pandemonium. Dell provided computers and flat-screen monitors for the new center at big discounts.


Central command

The international outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to deploy a newly built emergency operations center.

The center, located at CDC's headquarters in Atlanta, includes 85 workstations, nine team meeting rooms and a central command station. Radio support, geographic information systems for disease mapping and large plasma screens for videoconferencing allow officials to gather and disseminate SARS data worldwide.

Bernard Marcus, co-founder of the Home Depot Inc., last year offered $3.9 million to equip the center, which was dubbed the Marcus Emergency Operation Center. Marcus challenged corporations to donate equipment, and 15 companies, including Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Symbol Technologies Inc., donated or offered discounts on printers, computers and audiovisual equipment.


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