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Early warning net tracks health threats

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UNITED NATIONS, Nov 17, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Canada and the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative have launched an updated Global Public Health Intelligence Network, an "early warning" alert system, which gathers and disseminates around the clock preliminary reports in seven languages.

The multimillion-dollar, secure, Web-based system was developed by Canadian health officials with support and financial assistance from NTI, an organization devoted to reducing global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, co-chaired by philanthropist Ted Turner and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.

Along with Canada's Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh and Dr. Stephen Corber, area manager of Disease Prevention and Control for the Pan-American Health Organization, they attended the launch at U.N. World Headquarters in New York of the U.N.'s World Health Organization. The event was linked with a news conference in Ottawa, Canada, by television.

The new health information network, known by its acronym GPHIN, is maintained by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The PHA coordinates efforts with other partners to identify, reduce and respond to public health risks and threats and acts as a hub for health surveillance and disease-control programs.

"In a world where diseases know no borders, collaboration on public health initiatives must also extend beyond individual nations," said Dosanjh. "Such incidents as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and avian influenza have demonstrated the importance of a strengthened network of international cooperation and communications. GPHIN is an example of the benefit of this increased collaboration."

"With identification, we have the ability to protect our citizens and more people around the world," he said, adding that because of the program when there is a disease outbreak, "We can deal with it when have hundreds of cases instead of hundreds of thousands" of cases.

"With early warnings of such significant events as disease outbreaks, public health officials and other government authorities worldwide are better able to undertake the measures necessary to protect the health and safety of their populations," said Corber.

"Global cooperation is the way to peace and prosperity, and GPHIN is a great example," said Turner. "The more information, the more languages, the more countries, the more people that participate -- the healthier and safer everyone is."

He added: "We need to make the most of the tools of modern communication to inspire cooperation throughout the world for the earliest threat detection possible. There is no greater legacy we could leave our children and grandchildren than a peaceful and safer world."

The officials said GPHIN monitors news wires, Web sites and other media sources to gather and disseminate information on topics such as disease outbreaks, infectious diseases, contaminated food and water, bio-terrorism, exposure to chemical and radio-nuclear agents, and natural disasters. They said local media often are the first sources for such information.

The program, managed by PHA's Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, also monitors issues related to the safety of products, drugs and medical devices.

The information is filtered for relevancy by an automated process and eye-balled by humans before it is made readily accessible to GPHIN users, which includes WHO, government authorities worldwide who conduct public health surveillance, and non-governmental organizations involved in public health issues.

If the filtering identifies information about an event of significant public health risk, the information is automatically forwarded to GPHIN users by e-mail, the officials said.

"Accurate and timely information on global public health issues is key to being able to quickly assess and respond to emerging health risks around the world," said David Butler-Jones, the chief public health officer for Canada, who was called from the audience to answer questions.

While GPHIN I provided service only in English, GPHIN II has multilingual capacity in Arabic, English, French, Russian, simplified and traditional Chinese, and Spanish. Users can review the documents in the language of their choice.

"By enhancing its multiple language capacity, GPHIN II may prove to be the most important tool available for the early recognition of global public health threats -- including the intentional use of a biological agent," said Nunn.

On average, WHO now investigates 200 outbreaks every year. Of these, around 50 will require an international response.

The original GPHIN helped WHO identify and respond effectively to disasters, such as outbreaks of typhoid fever in Kenya in February 2001, legionellosis in Spain in July 2001 and cholera in Zanzibar in February 2002, officials said.

The original GPHIN also was one of the principle partners to WHO in contributing to the global response to SARS, they said. Throughout the outbreak, GPHIN provided raw intelligence that helped WHO maintain up-to-date and high-quality information on indications that the disease might be spreading to new areas outside of China.

The new version, GPHIN II, with its enhanced language capacity, might have identified the initial outbreak even sooner by translating Chinese language media sources, the officials said.

The cost is based on a number of factors, including whether the client is a government, non-governmental organization or university, the number of users, and the client's required customized features for which tabs run from about $25,000 to the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, officials said.

But in considering cost, Dosanjh said the threat of bio-terrorism has made the quick availability of such health information even more valuable and, in seeking ways to halt the effects of bio-terrorism through speedy reporting, the public can better safeguarded by speedy reaction to quickly obtained information.

Copyright 2004 by United Press International.

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