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Disease surveillance

IBM to develop disease warning IT system in Winnipeg

WINNIPEG – Federal health officials have turned to IBM to help develop a computerized early-warning system to detect outbreaks of infectious disease and bioterrorist attacks.

The Public Health Agency of Canada hopes the system, being developed as a pilot project in Winnipeg, will make it easier to contain outbreaks such as the one that left thousands of residents sick in North Battleford, Saskatchewan in 2001.

“This is really cutting-edge stuff,” Dr. Amin Kabani, a senior medical adviser with Health Canada, said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “If we find that this is successful and it adds significant value, then our recommendation certainly would be (to make it) a Canadian-wide enterprise.”

IBM Canada Ltd will be paid $887,000 to develop a system that will instantly collect data from hospital emergency rooms, laboratories, pharmacies and other health-related facilities in Winnipeg.

The system would alert health officials to a sudden rise in the number of emergency room visitors who exhibit symptoms of a particular infectious disease. It would also alert officials to any jump in the sale of particular types of over-the-counter medication that might be used to combat gastrointestinal or other diseases, said Kabani.

“If you remember the outbreak in North Battleford, there was evidence in retrospect that the sales from pharmaceutical outlets had gone up significantly about 10 days before public health officials recognized that there was something really serious going on in the community,” he said.

An estimated 7,000 people suffered from vomiting, diarrhea and high fever when the cryptosporidium parasite got into North Battleford’s drinking water after maintenance work was done on a filter at a treatment plant.

Manitoba Health Minister Tim Sale welcomed the initiative and said governments should get on top of outbreaks quickly.

“I think as we all learned in the SARS epidemic and other similar outbreaks, given travel patterns today, we can see a disease spread far, far more rapidly than any pandemic in the past has spread.”

The system being developed by IBM could also be used to sound the first warnings of a bioterrorist attack involving anthrax or other compounds. “Public health and counter-terrorism are very much linked,” said Kabani. “Not only can we detect public health events, but we can actually then detect unusual events that may imply that there is an intentional release of something going on in the community.”

Because the information would be drawn from hospitals and pharmacies throughout a city, health officials hope it would be able to pinpoint a particular neighbourhood or region affected by an outbreak.