Patients' symptoms could be clues to attack
By KEVIN GRAHAM
TAMPA -- Researchers at the University of South Florida have developed a system they say can alert officials to a bioterrorism attack in Central Florida at the earliest possible moment.
For the past year, scientists at the USF Center for Biological Defense have used a database system called BioDefend to detect health symptoms pointing to an epidemic or bioterrorist attack.
The system is now operating in 11 theme parks, clinics and hospitals in Hillsborough and Orange counties -- places considered likely targets.
Every time someone in those places receives health treatment, a checklist of their symptoms is entered into a database. At the same time, the information is automatically analyzed by BioDefend.
If suspicious symptoms show up, an alert is sent immediately to the cell phone or pager of a Center for Biological Defense scientist, who then contacts the health facility.
The symptoms being assessed include influenza-like illnesses, upper or lower respiratory tract infections, sepsis, nontraumatic shock, rashes or muscle weakness.
"The center is not guaranteeing they are going to sniff out an outbreak or terrorism, but by using this system, you will have the earliest possible notification of a potential outbreak," said John Perry, CEO of DataSphere, the Washington company that manufactured the BioDefend software.
"This is like a radar detector," he said. "No radar detector company gives you a guarantee that you will never get another ticket."
Kristin Broome Uhde, a scientist and epidemiologist at the Center for Biological Defense, said the technology is more advanced than anything put into place since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"After 9/11, the (Centers for Disease Control) took a system like this but didn't have an analysis component," Uhde said. "Automated analysis is where you want to go."
What makes BioDefend unique, she said, is its ability to read data in real time.
Uhde said she had one recent case in which the system alerted her to an above-normal data reading. When she called the clinic to check on it, the patient was still there.
If that patient would have had smallpox, the system's alert would have allowed doctors to detain him immediately.
"It just doesn't get any better than finding out while the patient is in the clinic," Uhde said.
The cost for such technology is unclear.
"Things like this have never really been tried without huge amounts of federal funding," said Perry, who said the Center for Biological Defense didn't have enough money to support the BioDefend program by itself.
So Perry's company developed the technology, while USF provided the "lab" for testing it.
"This is truly a marriage of federal institution and private company," he said.
The center is working to expand the system to EMS crews in Broward County. Uhde said the goal is to get patients' symptoms as quickly as possible. EMS crews often make first contact with a patient.
Uhde also is awaiting final word on funding that would allow officials to use the system at a Pinellas County veterans hospital.
Jacqueline Cattani, director for the Center for Biological Defense, said BioDefend is designed to complement the state's public health surveillance system, not replace it.
But in one case, she said, BioDefend recognized a problem more than a month before the state did.
"It's not a question of having one system that's going to take over the world. That's not going to happen," Cattani said. "(But) you don't want to wait until people are dropping dead in emergency rooms."
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