Fear and feathers

The appearance of avian flu among domestic birds in Turkey is making a lot of people nervous. Health experts have long been concerned that this flu, which has haunted Asia in recent years, could mutate into a virus that is passed from human to human and create an epidemic on the scale of the 1918 flu outbreak that killed tens of millions worldwide.

The question now is how can they stop it from spreading. Experts say early detection is essential. The longer a disease goes undetected, the more damage it can do and the harder it is to contain. Unfortunately, individual health care providers might not realize they are dealing with an outbreak until it is too late. That’s where technology can help.

Syndromic surveillance systems can collect data from pharmacies, emergency rooms, medical laboratories and other sources and search that information for unusual patterns.

For example, a large number of people in a region might show up at urgent care facilities with similar symptoms, but individual medical centers might not treat enough patients to recognize a pattern. However, a regional surveillance system that collects data from all the facilities could recognize the signs of a serious outbreak.

Interest in surveillance systems peaked in the months immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, when people began to think seriously about the dangers of bioterrorism. That threat has not materialized, but now another one, of nature’s devising, could put the public health community’s preparations to the test.

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