The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is developing a computerized network to gather a broad variety of information on illnesses to provide an early warning of a bioterror attack.
The system would gather data on visits to doctors' offices and emergency rooms, drugstore sales and calls to poison control centers in major U.S. cities.
Daily reports on fevers, headaches, diarrhea, vomiting, stuffy noses, coughs and rashes would be fed directly into central computers to be compared with normal seasonal, daily and regional fluctuations in known illnesses. That way, the theory goes, officials will find out quickly if there is a sudden surge in illness linked to a bioterror attack.
"We are going to be actively investigating ways of tapping the information that is already electronically available," said David Fleming, the CDC's deputy director for public health science.
In some cases, the system also could incorporate information on absenteeism at work, veterinary visits, requests for medical lab tests and even sales of over-the-counter medications in supermarkets.
The CDC already has more than 100 health-surveillance programs nationwide. Most of them track specific diseases, such as tuberculosis and measles, or trends in clusters of diseases, such as food-borne illness and hospital infections.
The network will have an added benefit, he said.
"Even if there is never another bioterror incident, this system will help us with the day-to-day business of responding to traditional diseases," Fleming said.
Although the CDC has not disclosed the cost and location of the network sites, the initial effort is expected to be concentrated in eight or 10 cities that also will have the Environmental Protection Agency's new system Bio-Watch air quality monitors, which was announced last week. The EPA monitors are designed to provide 24-hour notice of any release of anthrax, smallpox or other deadly germs.