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Bio-Threat Early Warning System Gets Booster Shot

A North Carolina-based group was awarded an additional $3 million in federal funding to expand its health epidemic forecasting technology.

A statewide bio-surveillance system designed to provide early detection of potential health threats has received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to continue its research efforts.

Called the North Carolina Bio-Preparedness Collaborative (NCB-Prepared), the group was formed in 2010 through an initial $5 million grant from the DHS. The public-private partnership includes representatives from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and SAS. The new funding will be used to expand the system and help determine how information from the collaborative can best be used by local, state and federal agencies.

The group’s detection system accumulates disparate data streams from a number of different sources. Those feeds include recent life-threatening disease cases from emergency medical services, reports about food production and information from animal and human clinical services. 

That data is combined and analyzed by NCB-Prepared members using the collective's proprietary text analytics and analysis approaches. The group is then able to predict whether a particular health event is a sign of a pending disease epidemic or evidence of a terrorist release of a pathogen in the food, air or water supplies.

According to Charles Cairns, principal investigator with NCB-Prepared, the collective’s goal is to detect outbreaks quickly and get the data to decision-makers who can intervene and save lives. He views the system as a way to speed-up intervention efforts, as opposed to traditional disease surveillance methods that are centered on investigating a health event and its origins.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is literally detect things within hours or days,” Cairns said. “And we’re trying to recognize cases, classify them as a particular disease or health challenge, understand the change … over a particular geography or a particular time, and then be able to understand what’s going to happen next.”

The University of North Carolina’s Department of Emergency Medicine played an early critical role for the collective by taking a close look at emergency department data across the entire state. The department developed data standardization approaches including information collection forms and systems that were used statewide in the system’s beginning stages.

The NCB-Prepared team is made up of public- and private-sector medical, public health, technology, sociology and psychology experts. The group also includes emergency management officials and first responders.

Barbara Entwisle, vice chancellor for research at UNC Chapel Hill, called the collective and its system a “powerful tool” to stopping outbreaks before they become widespread public threats.

“This is one of those areas where, using data and new technologies, university researchers and our industry partners can make a real difference in peoples’ lives,” Entwisle said in a statement.

Early Returns

The system has already been successful in several cases. In 2011, the collective identified an outbreak of norovirus three months earlier than it was announced by public health officials. Cairns explained that his team used the bio-surveillance system to obtain data from pre-hospital providers, such as paramedics, and using the collective’s analytic approaches was able to determine the outbreak's severity. The findings were made public at a meeting of the International Society for Disease Surveillance in 2011.

NCB-Prepared also was successful in determining the severity of last year’s flu outbreak in North Carolina. The collective evaluated a series of Internet search terms and emergency medical services records, and accurately predicted the severity of the 2012 flu season three months ahead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public announcement.

According to Cairns, the group is effective because of the early access it has to data from an event where people cross paths with the health-care system.

“Our current approach is to really look at emergency health data, so we’re not looking for things that aren’t severe or aren’t life-threatening,” he said. “We’re really focused on that slice of data because we think that’s the best opportunity to intervene and save lives.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.