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Biosurveillance Gateway Maps Epidemics in Effort to Learn Ways to Stop Contagion's Spread

Public health officials can use the website to look at how some diseases had spread during epidemics and how they were stopped.

(TNS) — New Mexico hasn’t had its first zombie infection yet, but if that happens, Nick Generous and others on a Los Alamos National Laboratory team will probably map it on their new Biosurveillance Gateway website.

All epidemics — whether ebola, measles or zombie apocalypses — begin with patient zero.

“In the earliest stages of outbreak, there’s this critical period of time that officials can enact certain interventions to minimize and prevent the spread,” said Generous, a molecular biologist who helped develop the Biosurveillance Gateway. “So, how do you decide what to do?”

Quarantine, vaccinate or, in the case of that nasty zombie, just shoot its head off?

Looking at how other communities and countries have handled outbreaks can help public health officials determine best approaches for managing a new one.

The Biosurveillance Gateway showcases lab databases and other tools that help health officials and researchers track disease outbreaks around the world and analyze their spread.

Still in its beta stage, the website provides information about diseases and other health threats to people, animals and plants. The website’s databases run the gamut from theoretical computational software for researchers analyzing virus genomes to a Biosurveillance Research Directory that’s more geared for public health doctors and officials.

“Most people associate LANL with the nuclear weapons research side of things, but what most people don’t realize is that we do a lot of biological and epidemiological research as well, everything from helping develop AIDS vaccines to predicting how disease outbreaks will unfold, like the H1N1 virus in 2009,” Generous said. “All these different efforts have never really been centralized in a single location.”

Generous and a half-dozen others began developing the website about a year and a half ago, a few months after President Barack Obama released his National Strategy for Biosurveillance.

Biosurveillance is a broad and growing field that predicts the emergence, spread and impact on societies of diseases and natural disasters, as well as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Obama called it essential to national security.

Disease epidemiology alone is a huge field because researchers have to understand how people interact with each other, animals and their environment to figure out how diseases spread.

“Really this is the idea of one health. You have to understand the intricacy, the whole of the ecosystem, to understand the spread of disease,” Generous said.

Public health officials can use the Biosurveillance Gateway to look at how some diseases had spread during epidemics and how they were stopped. As old diseases re-emerge in the United States, like measles, or new ones start taking root, like Dengue fever, those comparisons could be useful.

Measles once infected more than 90 percent of people in the United States prior to 1963, when a vaccine was developed. Each year, an average of more than 3 million people had measles, and 450 died. With the vaccination, measles cases declined by 98 percent.

But the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland in California has public health officials on edge and other states worried.

Enter New Mexico’s single measles case from last year on the website’s Surveillance Window App, along with population and other information, and the site pulls up outbreaks that shared similar factors. The most similar outbreak occurred in 2012 in New South Wales, Australia, where one case became more than 160 cases of measles in six months. The likely cause of the spread was a decline in vaccination rates and international travelers, according to the Australian Department of Health.

The Gateway site is packed with links to other databases. One goes to the U.S. Geological Survey, which has maps of diseases spread by mosquitoes and other vectors. The one for Dengue fever shows how the virus is spreading in the United States. California, Arizona and Texas have all had cases, but not New Mexico as of Jan. 14.

Generous, a private pilot when he’s not studying diseases, said he’s always been drawn to applied science that has a tangible impact. “There’s a lot of room for growth in this field, and that excites me,” he said. “I can talk about diseases for hours.”

And he definitely, just for fun, wants to plot what a zombie outbreak would look like. “What is zombie biology? What happens over time and how transmissible is the virus?” Generous asked, noting there is no such disease.

Not yet.

©2015 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.