DOD takes biodefense to local level

Last year's anthrax crisis got the attention of public officials, from the Pentagon to town halls around the country. The Defense Department last month announced a plan to work with state and local health officials to test a surveillance system for biological agents in Albuquerque, N.M., as part of the Biological Defense Homeland Security Support Program.

Dubbed the Biological Defense Initiative, the program will be administered by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Defense officials will work with the New Mexico Public Safety and Health departments and the Bernalillo County Health Department to cull health-related data from environmental monitors, pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices.

The system will send the information to a central lab for analysis. Any spike in unusual symptoms could indicate a bioterrorist attack. For example, if flu medication sales in an area surge in July, it could indicate a biological agent released by terrorists.

Although BDI officials said for reasons of national security they could not name specific agents they will be looking for, the program will limit analysis to biological agents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists such agents as 'organisms that pose a risk to national security' because they are potentially deadly and can be spread from person to person. Such agents include anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola and Marburg.

The specific technologies that will be used are still being decided, said Lt. David Gai, a spokesman with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. 'It's still at the vision level,' he said.

GIS option

The Web will be one element of the process, but it won't be the only means of disseminating information, said Robert Kehlet, the BDI program manager. BDI officials will use a geographic information system based on ArcView from ESRI of Redlands, Calif., Kehlet said. The GIS will show where an event is happening, the extent of the event, how many people are affected and what response is needed.

'We picked Albuquerque as a test bed for several reasons,' Kehlet said. 'We had to be able to test this project in a place where it's OK if it doesn't work.' Albuquerque has participated in government tests before and had sufficient emergency backup systems, Kehlet said. The greater metropolitan area is home to Kirtland Air Force Base, and the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory. 'This will give us a chance to evaluate and test the architecture before we tailor it for other urban areas,' he said.

The program also will collect data from point sensors, which Kehlet described as devices like 'giant vacuum cleaners with filters that suck in a lot of air. Then we collect what was caught in the filters, take it to a lab and analyze it,' Kehlet said.

The department will choose two other cities to be test beds for the program in a competition in December.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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