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Analysis: NATO begins pandemic monitoring

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by Shaun Waterman
Washington (UPI) Jan 30, 2008
NATO recently became the latest agency, and the first military one, to sign up for the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, an international initiative that monitors media and other open-source material 24/7 for signs of emerging pandemics and other public health disasters.

The network, based in Ottawa and known by its initials GPHIN, is an "early-warning system using media to detect public health events," GPHIN Senior Surveillance Officer Richard Lemay told United Press International in a recent interview.

Lemay said NATO was "piloting the GPHIN system to see whether it can fulfill some of their public health surveillance needs," adding the network was open to membership from all sorts of agencies and organizations. "If we have a request (to join), we will assess żż whether it fits the GPHIN mandate," he said.

If NATO decides to sign on, it will become the latest GPHIN subscriber, joining public health agencies from several European and North American countries and global actors like the World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

GPHIN analysts monitor broadcast media and the Internet 24 hours a day, collating and translating material in seven languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Persian, Russian and Spanish. Other languages will be added as the system grows, according to the network's Web site

GPHIN has "a broad scope," said Lemay, tracking topics including outbreaks of infectious diseases in human and animals; incidents of food and water contamination; bioterrorism and accidental releases of chemical, biological and radioactive materials; and natural disasters.

According to the network's Web site, it also monitors "issues related to the safety of products, drugs and medical devices."

GPHIN analysts assess the significance of reports, for example of a new outbreak of avian flu, and enter them into a secure online database. Depending on the significance of the report and the preference of subscribers, automatic alerts can also be sent out via e-mail.

Lemay said that, by monitoring non-official sources of information like news broadcast, Web sites and blogs, GPHIN was able to provide much more timely information than government agencies generally provided.

"In some cases," he said, "the head start was as much as six months." As an example, he said that the first reports about possible H5N1 bird flu infections in Iran appeared in Persian language media in September 2005, but despite discussions with international experts later that year, it was not until February 2006 that Iranian officials confirmed the outbreak.

Ann-Marie Kimball, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who specializes in public health and the monitoring and control of emerging diseases, said GPHIN had been "a pioneer" in using technology in this way. "They have a long history," she said.

Over time, the network had been able to improve both the sensitivity and the specificity of its information-gathering techniques, she said, adding there had been a large number of recent advances in the kind of filtering and searching technology that such systems employed.

Subscription fees vary depending on factors such as the type of organization -- governmental, non-governmental, academic etc. -- the number of users at the organization, and how much customization the subscriber requires. Rates can run up to a quarter of a million Canadian dollars annually, though non-profits can pay as little as Canadian $30,000 a year.

GPHIN is run by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the nation's nerve-center for expertise and research in public health. It was originally developed as an English-language-only service in 1998 by Canadian health officials. In November 2004 -- with financial support from the Washington-based anti-proliferation non-profit the Nuclear Threat Initiative -- version two was brought online with an expanded language capacity and other additional capabilities.

The network is managed by Health Canada's Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, created in July 2000 to serve as a central coordinating point for public health security.

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China reports outbreak of bird flu in Tibet
Beijing (AFP) Jan 29, 2008
China's agricultural authorities Tuesday reported an outbreak of bird flu in Tibet near the regional capital of Lhasa, state media said.

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