Marchibroda: Don’t prevent the future — build it

The world anxiously anticipates the next pandemic. Whether it arrives as severe acute respiratory syndrome, super-tuberculosis, avian flu or some unknown pathogen or agent intentionally employed, experts agree that it is not a question of if but when a global pandemic will again plague our planet.

The human, economic and political effects a global pandemic will have on the world’s population are almost unfathomable.

Information technology is increasingly being deployed to address a number of health care’s most vexing challenges, including the global pandemic threat. President Bush’s new national plan to prepare for an influenza pandemic incorporates IT development and deployment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are also developing health informatics solutions to bolster preparedness, such as the Public Health Information Network and BioSense.

Both programs are state-of-the-art, multijurisdictional efforts to share data and recognize unusual patterns or clusters of disease.

In addition, the public/private American Health Information Community, chaired by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, has selected public health surveillance as one of its key areas of focus.

IT can help minimize a pandemic’s impact by providing critical infrastructure, support and efficiency at every step in the preparedness and response chain. Technology can help detect the first signs of a pandemic, manage an outbreak, electronically report laboratory results, report on cases, administer countermeasures and responses, and keep key officials in communication with one another and with the public.

Important cooperation is also occurring at the international level. Institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a host of other philanthropic and nongovernmental organizations are collaborating with governments worldwide.

Their goals include strengthening the global exchange of data among surveillance networks and expanding the availability of equipment for electronic communication.

One example of that effort is WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which seeks to bolster international epidemic responses by standardizing epidemiological, laboratory, clinical management, research, communications, logistics support, security, evacuation and communications systems.

The eHealth Initiative recognizes the importance of supporting public/private partnerships for deploying health IT to aid those working to identify better ways to prevent and manage outbreaks. Our work with CDC and local health departments and our Leadership in Global Health Technology Initiative promote discussions about health IT that support better sharing of tools and knowledge between the developed and developing worlds.

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once said, “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.” IT is essential to building a foundation for a future in which global pandemics can be accurately predicted, diagnosed and managed. The eHealth Initiative looks forward to contributing to such a future.

Marchibroda is chief executive officer of the eHealth Initiative. Ticia Gerber, the initiative’s vice president of policy and international programs, contributed to this report.

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