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September 17, 2014

APL’s IT and Analytics Expertise Strengthens Disease Surveillance


False-color image of the trailing northern hemisphere on Jupiter's moon Europa
APL scientists use environmental data to help predict disease outbreaks.

In recent years, health surveillance activities have expanded in scale, scope and depth to address evolving health challenges and emerging threats around the world. Public health officials must monitor the health of their population for outbreaks of routine infectious diseases, such as influenza and gastrointestinal illness, as well as emerging diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola. In doing so, they rely upon data they can access through surveillance tools. APL has developed technologies for electronic disease surveillance that help improve the timeliness of access to this type of data and the corresponding analysis.

“The Laboratory has developed advanced electronic disease surveillance technologies that have been instrumental for our public health partners in monitoring established patterns of disease progression,” said Sheri Lewis, Global Health Surveillance program manager in APL’s Homeland Protection Mission Area. The latest issue of the Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest describes the development and implementation of these technologies, the process and challenges of making the tools open source, and the potential for new analytic models for early detection of disease outbreak.

The Laboratory’s work in disease surveillance dates back to 1998, when researcher Joe Lombardo received an Independent Research and Development award to develop an advanced disease surveillance tool for the Department of Defense (DoD) and the health departments in the National Capital Region (NCR). That tool, known as the Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics (ESSENCE), is now used by the Departments of Defense and Veteran’s Affairs as well as many state and local health departments across the United States. With additional support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the APL-developed system was fully deployed in fall 2001, after letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others.

After the events in 2001 and the success of ESSENCE in the NCR, sponsors turned to APL to fully deploy ESSENCE and accelerate its development. APL’s expertise in detection algorithms — the ability to pull signal out of noise — is one way in which the Lab was uniquely qualified to develop and implement automated applications to acquire, process and present data using modern information and communication technology.

Over the last 15 years, the Lab’s work in global health and disease surveillance has grown to encompass all phases of the surveillance timeline — from the prediction of a potential disease outbreak to maintaining situational awareness of the community after an outbreak has been detected. The latest issue of the APL Technical Digest highlights the ever-increasing role the Laboratory plays in the area of global health surveillance. It includes coverage of the Suite for Automated Global Electronic bioSurveillance (SAGES), which builds on ESSENCE and is now the cornerstone of APL’s global health surveillance program.

Looking forward, Lewis said the Global Health Surveillance team will explore predictive analytics, the use of algorithms to forecast future events in real time. “If we know a disease is endemic in an area, can we predict when it will flare up and when it’s likely to become an outbreak?” she said. “This type of information can potentially help public health officials target their mitigation strategies.”

Media contact: Paulette Campbell, 240-228-6792, Paulette.Campbell@jhuapl.edu

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.