State's new web site battles epidemics, bioterrorism

Epidemics, like the newly-recognized SARS virus, can spread like wildfire.

But a cutting-edge computer application, developed by the Florida Department of Health, transmits medical information faster than germs can multiply.

EpiCom stands for "epidemiological communication." Don Ward, acting chief of the state's Bureau of Epidemiology, compared it to a professionally monitored Internet chat room for medical providers.

In the event of a rapidly spreading epidemic, or a bioterror attack, EpiCom "pushes" an urgent message by phone, fax, pager and e-mail to public health providers to log on and update themselves.

"We consider this to be a very high-level surveillance system for defense against possible terrorist threats. It's very state-of-the-art," Ward said. "This is the first system in any state in the U.S. to use this technology in this way."

"You have to realize this is separate from ordinary reporting systems," said Dr. John Piacitelli, director of Charlotte County's Health Department. "This provides a more informal communications system to be able to deal with suspicious situations quickly, rather than waiting until you've come to a diagnosis, which may be some time later."

"It's value is really recognizing the cases early on. Then, we can apply epidemiological and preventive techniques," Ward said. "The sooner we can identify the potential for an epidemic, the sooner we can intervene."

Right now, EpiCom is aimed at Florida's public-health providers. But Ward hopes the state's hospitals will soon adopt the system, which will be distributed for free.

"If you're a doctor in a hospital and notice a significant cluster of a rash with fever, you can get on EpiCom and provide that information," Ward explained. "You can specify if you think it's an emergency. If so, EpiCom will alert the moderator."

The moderators, several state epidemiologists, will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, rotating on a weekly basis.

"We can use this to get 'way ahead of the disease-reporting system, based on the astuteness of people in the medical community," Ward said. "It would be very valuable in an anthrax event, or with the SARS situation."

SARS, sudden acute respiratory syndrome, is a new, highly communicable pneumonia-like disease. In Asia, where the virus is believed to have originated, thousands have been infected and hundreds have died. But Florida has reported only 14 suspected cases so far, none of them fatal.

No SARS cases have been reported in Charlotte or DeSoto counties.

Piacitelli was trained on the EpiCom system Monday. "It will help identify and report bioterrorism as early as possible," he said. "It will tell us whether a similar problem is occurring in other counties. We can also use Web site as an updated information source, and check it to see what's being reported."

The EpiCom Web site will only be available to medical professionals who subscribe to the service. The use of a medical monitor, like a chat room moderator, will avoid the posting of unnecessary or inappropriate information and allow those using the site to focus on critical items.

"We can't use it to communicate randomly," Piacitelli said. "When information is being posted for 67 counties, it needs to have a high quality basis as to what's sent."

Under development for a year, EpiCom costs about $300,000, which was spent for systems development, coding and the emergency notification system. It was funded partly by a $40 million anti-terrorism grant from the Centers for Disease Control and partly by an $8 million special award from the Florida legislature in 2001.

Ward credited Pete Garner, EpiCom's project officer and technical developer, and the leadership is Secretary of Health, Dr. John Agwunobi for bringing the system online so quickly.

On Tuesday, WGCU radio in Fort Myers reported that EpiCom's debut was being announced a week early because of the SARS epidemic. Ward confirmed that. But Bill Parizek, director of the health department's communications office, said no formal press release was sent to the media, and none was planned.

You can e-mail Malcolm Brenner at