Disease surveillance through a murky crystal ball

Critics say too many systems are collecting data on disease outbreaks with little coordination among them

About 300 systems at federal, state and local agencies monitor disease outbreaks and chemical exposure. Some critics say that multiplicity is a problem.

Serena Vinter, a senior research associate at the Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit public health organization, said having so many monitoring systems results in a murky rather than crystal-clear picture.

“There are too many disease surveillance systems, and they do not necessarily communicate with each other,” Vinter said. “It is hard to get a good picture.”

Others say the organizations in charge of alerting the public are often slow to act. Veratect, a company that tracks disease outbreaks, said it had sounded the alarm about the swine flu outbreak in Mexico March 30, but several weeks passed before the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began widely publicizing the illness.

Furthermore, much of the disease tracking for public health purposes occurs at the state and local levels. Officials are trying to upgrade their systems during a time of budget cuts for lab testing and epidemiologists.

CDC’s role has been to work with states to aggregate and analyze data via a number of reporting networks. For example, CDC conducts flu surveillance every year from October to May, when it gathers data from 150 laboratories, 3,000 outpatient care sites, and 56 state and territorial health departments. The data is reported weekly on CDC’s Web site.

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