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Last Updated

20 Mar 2003

Source: Boston Globe, March 20, 2003


Database on alert for outbreaks

By Rick Klein, Globe Staff

If bioterrorists attack a site in Greater Boston, state health officials say they can know about it early, via a computerized tracking system that identifies outbreaks of disease.

Through the tracking system, whenever any of about 150,000 Eastern Massachusetts residents contact their doctors or walk into a hospital or health care clinic, their symptoms are reported to a database that's reviewed by state Department of Health officials. The data allow officials to identify abnormally high rates of symptoms in particular areas, allowing doctors to learn of a bioterror incident before diseases such as anthrax and smallpox are spread to large swaths of the population.

''If there are patterns of sickness that would develop, we would like to be able to understand that, to see if they might have been caused by a biotechnical agent of some kind,'' Governor Mitt Romney said yesterday at a press conference held to highlight the system, which has been running for nearly 18 months. ''I want to reassure the people of Massachusetts that their protection and the safety of their families is our highest priority.''

The residents whose symptoms are being tracked in the database receive their health care through Harvard Pilgrim, and the database's managers conceded that most people probably have no idea that their calls and doctors' visits are being analyzed in such a manner. They said they have been careful to respect patients' privacy, noting that the database includes no names. Instead, analysts are provided with numbers of people reporting symptoms in any given neighborhood.

The database can show unexpected spikes in the number of people reporting seemingly mundane cold symptoms, which are often the ways that bioterror agents first manifest themselves. The data potentially give public health workers several days' jump in identifying possible attacks and in designing treatments and responses, said Dr. Richard Platt of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, who helped design the system, which has become a national model.