New European medical intelligence system will help identify public health threats

Brussels 13 August 2007The European Commission has developed a medical intelligence system that constantly collects and sorts information from more than 1000 news and 120 public health websites in 32 languages. Complementing traditional approaches, the system, called MediSys, will provide health authorities with real-time knowledge about disease outbreaks or industrial accidents, thereby helping to identify such incidents as early as possible and so react in a timely way. It can also provide invaluable information to authorities tackling a major incident such as a bio-terrorist attack.

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Traditional surveillance systems monitor death rates, the utilisation of health services (e.g. emergency room admissions, drug prescriptions), abnormal patterns, changing laboratory characteristics and exposure to risks related to the environment, food or animals. Yet, certain public or animal health threats may go unnoticed but can be reported in the local press or by other less known sources. The challenge is how to find them.

Using pre-defined keywords and combinations, MediSys crawls through the web and sorts information into three primary categories: "Diseases", "Bioterrorism", and "Other Threats". Articles or "hits" are then classified in more precise categories such as "AIDS-HIV", "Respiratory infections", "Avian flu", "Legionella", "Anthrax" or "Nuclear safety".

Statistics are stored on the filtered categories and "breaking news" is detected in a given category. Based on the level of new articles retrieved and the detected keywords, an automatic alert can then be sent by e-mail and SMS to decision-makers who are on permanent standby. For example, in the recent case of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom, MediSys detected a sudden jump in news reports and automatically sent e-mail and SMS alerts to Public Health officials across Europe.

Working with the University of Helsinki, an automatic incident detection system has also been put in place. This analyses English reports and extracts structured data on the number of cases, the location and the date. This then feeds an automatic incident database used by the Member States and the European Commission. Citizens can also have free access to this automatic information scanning tool, which includes alert statistics, articles in various languages, and e-mail alerts.

Access to the public version of MediSys is now possible for consultation by citizens.


Leslie Versweyveld

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