RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Biosurveillance – the automated monitoring of health trend data – can enhance the detection of naturally occurring or intentional disease outbreaks, according to a study by researchers at RTI International.
The study, published in the March issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, conducted three case studies from 2007-2008 whose biosurveillance systems cover more than 10 million people. The in-depth interviews describe how biosurveillance systems have been used by state and local public health practitioners to identify and investigate outbreaks.
For example, the researchers found that in North Carolina, several university students got food poisoning at an event just before a semester break. That meant that the students ended up visiting emergency rooms throughout the state with their gastrointestinal symptoms.
"Ordinarily these circumstances would have made identifying the source of this outbreak very difficult, if not impossible," said Neely Kaydos-Daniels, Ph.D., senior research epidemiologist at RTI and the paper's lead author. "However, because the data from these events were entered into the biosurveillance system, health officials were able to identify the source of the outbreak."
In another case, a rapid increase of rash illness caused by itch mites was first detected by biosurveillance before it was reported by other means. Epidemiologists were able to estimate the increase in number of cases of the rash over time through the biosurveillance system.
According to the study, biosurveillance helped state and local health departments track epidemics over time. That information was instrumental in the decision-making process of health departments and hospitals to implement control measure to protect at-risk populations and prevent future cases.
However, the study also showed that the systems often identify a large number of false positives and were considered more useful for outbreaks of severe disease than for milder disease, because the systems currently only pull data from emergency departments.
"Biosurveillance will be even more effective if we can integrate data from primary care physicians with emergency departments," Kaydos-Daniels said. "The consideration of public health data needs for biosurveillance is critical to our population's health. Federal initiatives to encourage adoption of electronic health records among health care providers are vital to improving the utility of biosurveillance and the capacity of health departments."
The study was funded by Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.