System taps data for bioterror clues

Two Massachusetts-based companies, Metatomix Inc. and SiteScape Inc., have developed a Web-based syndromic surveillance system that provides real-time monitoring of potential bioterrorist threats by culling data from a variety of sources.

Syndromic surveillance involves tapping data from laboratories, clinics, pharmacies, hospitals or public health departments, looking for clusters of particular symptoms that may signal a bioterrorist attack.

"What we do is, we tie non-invasively into those systems," said Karen Cummings, Metatomix's vice president for marketing. She said the company's SMARTE (Surveillance, Monitoring and Real-Time Events) system was designed so organizations and agencies would not give up ownership of their data. Nothing is required on a participating agency's end except a secure port to access their information system.

SMARTE takes structured and unstructured data into an "interchange platform," she said, "and aggregates it into a persistent cache." The data is formatted into Extensible Markup Language.

Data would temporarily reside in a dedicated server, preferably owned by a state agency, where it would be analyzed but not stored, Cummings said, adding that the system would adhere to federal privacy and security guidelines.

"All of this information is held in the strictest confidence with the owners of the information," said Scott Marshall, the company's director of marketing. Key authorized personnel, such as the head of an emergency management agency or a public health department, would view such data, he added.

Rules-based engines for specific scenarios would be integrated into the platform, she said. For example, if an unusually high number of influenza or Lyme disease cases were reported during a season when occurrences should be low, SMARTE would trigger an alarm, alerting someone in charge to take a closer look.

Through geocoding, a user can drill down further and see specific data about a hospital, area or region and contact others should further action be required. The system would be able to show an affected area's resources, such as hospital bed capacity and the availability of vaccines.

SMARTE would also conform to developing federal systems such as the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System and Health Alert Network, they said.

Cummings said that the political challenge of sharing information exists, but progress is being made.

"It's certainly taken more time than we would have expected," she said. "States have done a really decent job of assessing what they have."

Several states are in negotiations with the companies regarding SMARTE, she said.

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