White House plan requires integrating bioterror warning systems

'Our government must have the very best information possible,' President Bush says.

Henrick G. DeGyor

The government has begun work on multiple bioterrorism alert systems that it must integrate to create the nationwide warning network described by President Bush last month in his State of the Union address.

The president said the nation was 'deploying the first early warning network of sensors to detect biological attack.'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Defense Department have warning systems in development. And the Environmental Protection Agency has sensors that could identify the release of bioterror agents.

EPA will adapt many of its 3,000 air quality monitoring stations throughout the United States to detect pathogens. The samples will go to a network of CDC laboratories.

How the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Biological Defense Initiative will mesh with CDC's projects still must be defined. Having just completed a pilot, DTRA has put its program on hold while Defense brass review the pilot results.

DOD officials 'want to make sure that the next step is a smart one,' said Maj. Linda Ritchie, a DTRA spokeswoman.

The department's biological surveillance system test bed in Albuquerque, N.M., collected health-related data from environmental monitors, pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices.
DTRA plans call for test beds in two other cities but the future of those projects'in light of the broader national effort'now is unclear.

With war looming in Iraq and the possibility of retaliatory biological weapons being used, the need for an accurate, widespread system for disease surveillance has become a high priority for the government, federal officials said.

CDC officials in Atlanta expect that they will play a large role in the system described by the president, CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben said, but 'it's not like CDC is going to take it over.'
CDC's Health Alert Network also would come under the larger health data surveillance system, Harben said. The network sends secure e-mail and fax alerts to health departments in all 50 states, Washington and Guam.

CDC's other existing health information-sharing systems, such as the Epidemic Information Exchange and the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System, would also likely hook in, Harben said.

NEDSS is constantly evolving, Harben said, and 'will still be evolving five or 10 years from now. Disease reports come to us automatically, as opposed to someone having to remember to fax a report.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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