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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 4, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 13
APL Opens Center in Public Health Informatics

By Paulette Campbell
Applied Physics Laboratory

The Applied Physics Laboratory has received a $4 million three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish a Center for Excellence in Public Health Informatics. APL's center will be one of five funded by CDC to conduct research leading to major scientific advances in public health informatics.

Public health informatics is a relatively new field that refers to the science that deals with health information, its structure, acquisition and use to promote health. In recent years, APL has become a leader in developing computer applications to automate several aspects of disease surveillance.

In 1998, the Special Applications Branch of the Lab's National Security Technology Department began work on an automated disease surveillance system, now known as Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics, or ESSENCE, that compiles data such as emergency room visits and over-the-counter drug sales to look for early recognition of patterns that could indicate the outbreak of a disease. ESSENCE was widely used in the Washington, D.C., area immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Currently the system is being used in the National Capitol Region, composed of the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and the seven counties surrounding D.C.

Joe Lombardo, the director of the center, said the CDC grant will allow APL to focus its expertise in basic research for public health informatics. "We've done a great deal of application work," he said, "but it's important to be able to step back once in a while to look at areas where major enhancements may be possible in the next few years."

Many regions across the nation have set up advanced disease surveillance systems in response to threats of bioterrorism, and part of the new center's efforts will be to look at ways to expand and connect those systems into networks so they can work synergistically. "We envision a public health network where information can be exchanged across the country and among regional partners to improve our surveillance capacity," Lombardo said.

Finally, the center will look into ways to improve the way information is presented to the epidemiologists who use these systems. "The Lab has done a great deal of work in improving visualization tools, so we want to leverage that expertise," Lombardo said. "When you start expanding networks across borders, it's important to be able to transmit information electronically in a consistent manner so that health departments can work together to rapidly make decisions."

The center has already received an additional $1.5 million grant for a three-year project titled "BioSense Initiative to Improve Early Outbreak Detection." Under this grant, researchers from APL and the University of Maryland, led by principal investigator Howard Burkom of APL, will work with CDC personnel to advance technologies associated with near real-time reporting, automated outbreak identification and analytics.


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