Experts examine the use of internet based tools in disease outbreak response

  • 13 Mar. 2011 - 15 Mar. 2011
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  • Last updated: 04 Apr. 2011 10:23

The potential threat of infectious diseases to the security of human life and global stability is very real. In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, the spread of new diseases may have an adverse affect not only on public health, but also on economic growth, trade, tourism, business and industry.

A quarantine officer monitors passengers walking through a temperature screening checkpoint at Suvarnabhumi airport April 27, 2009. Countries around the world have moved to contain the spread of a possible pandemic after a new swine flu outbreak killed 103 people in Mexico.  REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang  (THAILAND HEALTH)

© Reuters

Severe high-mortality rate pandemics due to highly-transmissible viruses are a serious threat for the world in the 21st century. Over the past three decades scientists have identified more than 30 ’new’ infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola and the West Nile Virus. In addition, the risk of infectious diseases crossing species boundaries may be more frequent, as in the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or ‘mad cow disease’ and the threat of swine flu.

Against this background, experts and scientists convened in Haifa, Israel from 13 to 15 March 2011 to assess the use of the internet and online communication tools in the global monitoring of and response to disease outbreaks and pandemics.

Around 40 participants from NATO, Partner and Mediterranean Dialogue countries, including Japan, reviewed the main technological and public health issues, identified future trends and evaluated the main policy and regulatory implications. As well as chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear (CBRN) priorities, delegates also discussed:

  • epidemics, intelligence and security;
  • early detection of disease outbreaks by using the Internet: the technological context;
  • risks and challenges;
  • the case of flu epidemics;
  • policy implications of internet-based intelligence for public health emergencies.

The event demonstrated that over the past 15 years, internet technology has become an integral part of public health surveillance. Systems using informal electronic information have been credited with correctly identifying an outbreak, curtailing the suppression of information by governments and reducing the response time in tackling a potential epidemic or pandemic.

The workshop was the first international, multidisciplinary expert gathering devoted to the growing phenomenon of digital disease detection and its wider policy implications. It highlighted a number of initiatives aimed at identifying health crises earlier than conventional monitoring systems currently in use. Web crawlers – automated software programmes that roam the web for information – are increasingly used to ascertain patterns that may reveal an emerging threat.

The event included guest speakers from world-renowned institutions and organisations including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (USA), Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship (Italy), Institut Français d’Analyse Stratégique (France), and the School of Public Health at Haifa University (Israel).

The workshop is funded through NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme. For more information, visit (see “Calendar” for organisers’ contact details).