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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 16, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 34
Officials Simulate Bioterrorism to Test Disease Surveillance

Public health officials from the District of Columbia, Maryland and the Commonwealth of Virginia gathered recently at the Applied Physics Laboratory to demonstrate the utility of the National Capital Region Disease Surveillance Network.

Concerns about the potential for a large-scale bioterrorist attack or an outbreak of an infectious disease have prompted a growing number of jurisdictions across the nation to launch electronic tracking systems to quickly detect outbreaks. By compiling data from emergency rooms, poison control centers and other sources, disease surveillance can serve as an early warning alarm.

The NCR network uses a system called ESSENCE — for Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics — that was developed by the Lab with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. ESSENCE compiles data containing health indicators, performs analysis and provides information to local and regional public health officials on statistical anomalies that occur to help them identify bio-events early. Such irregularities would include upward trends in rashes, fevers and unexplained deaths, or a sudden surge in over-the-counter drug sales. It is the first system to integrate military and civilian data.

Each local and state public health jurisdiction in the NCR network responds independently to public health alerts. With an unprecedented collaborative network among public health programs, the NCR disease surveillance system offers a first line of defense in the national capital area.

The exercise at APL was designed to test the system, using a simulated terrorist attack to observe the response from public health authorities.

The NCR network is comprised of independent operation centers — known as surveillance nodes — in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, with a central "regional integration node" operated by APL for performing surveillance across jurisdictional boundaries. It operates 365 days a year, providing information to local and state public health departments.


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