Faster systems beat bacteria

Faster systems beat bacteria

California officials move disease data from mainframe to tracking system

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

A food-borne disease such as salmonella does not take a leisurely stroll through a population. When microbial and bacterial diseases hit, they spread like wildfire.

County health officials in California were often frustrated because the Health Services Department's Microbial Disease Laboratory's 18-year-old mainframe could not keep pace.

Not only did it run on a creaky IBM MVS 3270 system, but the Adabas database from Software AG of North America Inc. of Reston, Va., that contained the disease information produced limited reports, said Byron Roberts, project leader for the MDL data system. Plus, the user interface was an unfriendly, character-based green screen. And to top it all off, the system was not year 2000-ready.

Walk, then type

'You had to send a slip of paper up to the front office,' Roberts said. 'Then they'd key the specimen information in. It was labor intensive, almost manual labor.'

'With disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli, it's very important to find out where the infected people are,' said Marilyn Capener, MDL section chief. 'It would take us two to three weeks with the old system to track down where the patients were.'


Recently, the lab transferred 872,000 records from Adabas to an IBM DB2 Version 5.0 database using IBM VisualAge Generator.

MDL officials knew their ultimate goal was to get the disease-tracking system on the Web so that it could be used 'sort of the way UPS tracks packages,' Roberts said.

Also, it was important for the lab to know if a particular disease specimen was on the way, he said: 'We needed an early warning system.'

The Health Services Department already had a successful women, infants and children benefits system that was automated across the state using VisualAge Generator tools.

Department officials knew that there was an easy interface from VisualAge Generator to IBM Java tools, and that an object-oriented Java environment would be a stepping-stone to the Web, Roberts said.

The revamped MDL system uses MVS CICS Version 5 to access the DB2 database and IBM's WebSphere application server Version 4.6 running on a Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 Server, along with Domino Go Web Server Version 4.6.

Phase 2 of the program is to hook as many as 68 health offices, including all 39 of the state's public health offices, onto the Internet over TCP/IP lines. Public health officers can check the Web and find out instantly if the next county over is having a similar outbreak of salmonella, Roberts said.

The lab wasted no time on installation. The whole migration was accomplished with six programmers, all of them new to Java programming, four of them new to VisualAge Generator. The team trained for three weeks on VisualAge for Java, spent eight weeks on development and four weeks on testing.

The results? The turnaround time for an epidemiologist in Berkeley, Calif., to check the main reference DB2 database in Sacramento was three seconds, said Capener.

When the Web application goes live in the fall, its security will be strengthened through a virtual private network, Roberts said. 'Then later on we'll probably move to some kind of digital certificate.'

As in all public health systems, privacy is a top concern. 'Anytime we send anything over the line or e-mail test results, we never send the client's name and test results together,' Roberts said. 'We use an encoded number for the name.'

Just in time

The move to the speedier system came none too soon. Food-borne diseases caused by bacteria such as campylobacter, which is often found in undercooked poultry, are on the rise. Illness caused by the top three food-borne bacteria'salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli'have increased every July for the past three years, Capener said.

The lab's epidemiologists and technicians run the new system on high-end Pentium PCs, all from Dell Computer Corp.

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