Scientists test new technique to detect biological agents

With the threat of bioterrorism increasing in the United States, a new data entry technique that notes the symptoms of biological agents is being tested at theme parks and military hospitals.

Kristin Uhde, epidemiologist from the Center of Biological Defense in the College of Public Health spoke Thursday about BioDefense, the method used to detect possible attacks from biological weapons of mass destruction.

According to Uhde, BioDefense is being tested confidentially in Florida theme parks and military hospitals because that is where terrorists are most likely to attack. When patients are treated, their symptoms and all of their personal information are entered into a database that is used to detect bioterrorism. They are also asked if they attended a theme park within two weeks of their hospital visit. If the patient did visit a theme park, that information is compared with other people with similar symptoms who visited the same theme park.

“Warning signs of biological agents are like communicable disease symptoms,” Uhde said.

Symptoms such as respiratory tract infections, fevers, diarrhea and influenza-like illnesses could all be related to biological weapons of mass destruction. Those symptoms are noted in every patient’s file and entered into a Web site for review. If there is a significant rise in a particular symptom in a given day, authorities are notified immediately.

“If there is more illness than normal, we send out an alert,” Uhde said.

The busiest times for BioDefense are on weekends and evenings.

“Terrorists want to harm people when everyone is out and confined in particular areas,” Uhde said. They don’t want to terrorize when “everybody is at the office,” she said.

Uhde said the goal of terrorists is to create a “maximum number of casualties.”

A bioterrorism attack is appealing to terrorists because biological agents are invisible and can be spread easily. They also want Americans to “lose faith in their government,” she said.

The hope of BioDefense is to increase the response time in the event of a bioterrorism attack. In the past, responses often took a month.

“We want to notify the clinic when the patient is still there,” Uhde said.

With this new system, the fast response time may help contain the outbreak so fewer people are affected.