Stung by anthrax mailings after suicide skyjackings, the United States is hurrying to erect an electronic line of defense against further bioterrorism. At least five sophisticated biosurveillance systems are under development with federal funding to nonprofit and to proprietary ventures; two other groups already have products on the market. The goal is to install a national sentinel network that can detect suspicious trends in medical data and in illness behavior before diagnosis, to help contain a disease by identifying it soon after infections begin. Called syndromic surveillance because it tracks signs and symptoms rather than positively diagnosed disease, this new technology will also accelerate containment of naturally occurring pathogens.

The data processed by these systems range from traditional patient charts to such nontraditional sources as Internet health site hits, over-the-counter drug sales, or absences from work and school. A major challenge is accurate analysis of the data, which can involve...

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?