Biosense or Biononsense?

Years of development and hundreds of millions of dollars later, what has the CDC's syndromic surveillance program accomplished?
By Katherine Eban

It was two days before Thanksgiving 2004, when an epidemiologist in New Jersey's public health agency picked up a heart-stopping electronic message. The "Sentinel Infection Alert," from a computer program run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had detected what appeared to be the beginning of a smallpox outbreak in the state. There, however, New Jersey's public health officials were stuck. The alert, generated from deep within the CDC's headquarters in Atlanta, didn't clarify the data's origin, what sparked it, or how state officials could respond.

Calling the CDC two days before Thanksgiving didn't help. New Jersey's frantic health officials found the CDC's staffing and pace reminiscent of a sleepy, preterrorist agency. No one was in at the...

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