White House Issues First-Ever Biosurveillance Strategy
By Charlene Porter
White House - Working to better protect the public - domestically and internationally - from biological threats affecting human, animal or plant health, the Obama administration released its National Strategy for Biosurveillance July 31.
While the nation has been on alert for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats since the 2001 terrorist attacks, this strategy aims to extend that surveillance to include emerging infectious diseases, possible pandemics, agricultural threats and food-borne illnesses. A summary of the strategy released by the White House says the plan will "enhance all-hazards incident management ... whether an incident is deliberate, accidental or naturally occurring."
The strategy was released with a statement from President Obama. The strategy's "goal is to provide the critical information and ongoing situational awareness that enables better decisionmaking at all levels," he said.
Biological threats have caused a number of serious incidents in the United States over the last decade or so, involving alarm, illness outbreaks, and even death. A notorious case of anthrax spores maliciously sent through the mails to various recipients in 2001 killed five people and sickened 17, and remains "the worst biological attacks in U.S. history," according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Law enforcement agencies spent years investigating that deliberate act of biological terrorism before a culprit was identified.
Sometimes naturally occurring perpetrators are the culprits, along with lapses in proper food-handling procedures. Cases of tainted spinach, hamburger or cantaloupe have been known to cause illness in dozens, even hundreds of people around the country. Such outbreaks cause significant consumer fear about what's in the refrigerator, but also serious economic losses across whole states or regions as consumers, supermarkets and grocers dispose of heaps of foodstuffs rather than risk consumption or spread of a disease-causing pathogen.
The new surveillance strategy aims to "enhance the nation's ability to detect, track, investigate, and navigate incidents" affecting health, the document says, to better protect the safety and well-being of the nation.
In the last week of July alone, four food-borne illness outbreaks occurred around the country, the largest involving 76 people in 22 states with one death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The strategy must maintain a global health perspective, the document says, noting recent cases of rapidly traveling pathogens, which have underscored diseases' disregard for international borders. Citing "our shared participation in global health security," the strategy says, "we should reinforce international connections with our national enterprise as the global biosurveillance network continues to grow."
Identifying biosurveillance as "a top national security priority," the strategy's intent is to save lives "by providing essential information for better decisionmaking at all levels."
The strategy document proposes a number of steps to strengthen biosurveillance - for example, the inclusion of social media in public awareness campaigns as a way to empower communities with early warnings of threats locally or globally.
The identification of new scientific and technological methods for improving biosurveillance activities is also proposed, suggesting a means of "forecasting likely CBRN incidents, food-borne illness, environmental disasters and outbreak trajectories in the absence of definitive data." By following trails laid in economic and weather forecasting, the strategy says, "there are innovative ways to combine information and known facts to project what is likely to transpire."
An implementation plan for a better-integrated biosurveillance strategy will be developed over the next few months.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)