A revolutionary public health warning system from the Public Health Agency of Canada just got the global recognition it deserves.

GPHIN2 — an enhanced and automated version of Health Canada’s earlier Global Public Health Intelligence Network — was officially launched at the United Nations yesterday. The Web-based tracking system identifies threats to public health.

Its launch was attended by public and private sector personalities, including Federal Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, chief public health officer of Canada, Dr. David Butler-Jones, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, and U.S. media magnate Ted Turner.

The system monitors and analyzes more than 10,000 information sources in seven languages — English, French, Arabic, traditional and simplified Chinese, Russian and Spanish.

Each day, information from nearly 20,000 news reports is retrieved based on specific search criteria. This colossal collection of data is then appraised by analysts for further relevance, and disseminated to public health professionals worldwide.

GPHIN2 is the latest incarnation of the GPHIN platform launched by Health Canada seven years ago in response to a very real need.

“Health Canada wanted a system that could relay information on potential outbreaks directly to the international public health bodies,” said Abla Mawaudeku, GPHIN manager.

In the absence of such a system, she said, it would take months for information about an outbreak to filter through the various jurisdictions and levels of government — local, municipal, provincial and federal — and finally get to the World Health Organization. “Sometimes information was just not passed on,” Mawaudeku said.

With GPHIN, she said, intelligence is transmitted swiftly to stakeholders worldwide. “If there’s an outbreak in Congo, relevant information can be retrieved from local sources and relayed to international public health officials in seconds. These officials, in turn, can then verify the facts with the concerned country or region.”

Mawudeku, who is an epidemiologist, said GPHIN monitors infectious diseases not just in humans, but in animals and plants as well, and also tracks chemical incidents, radioactive exposures, dangerous products, natural disasters and much more. “Essentially we monitor everything from bugs to bombs. But always from the standpoint of how it impacts public health.”

GPHIN, she said, can monitor classical outbreak metrics — such as the number of infected people and resulting deaths — as well as the magnitude of the threat. During the SARS outbreak, she said, information was retrieved not just from affected countries but also from regions across Asia. “That helped us determine the event’s geographic distribution.”

The system also tracks “remedial” measures adopted by countries or and public carriers, such as airlines, to protect travelers.

More than 40 per cent of WHO information on potential public health risks comes from GPHIN — information, which when verified with member countries, usually proves to be remarkably accurate.

According to Mawudeku, GPHIN retrieved the first suggestive report on SARS in November 2002. It was an article in Chinese on how an unusual number of otherwise healthy people were visiting hospital emergency rooms with acute respiratory illness symptoms. “That information was disseminated,” to public health authorities. A month later, she said, another article in Chinese was retrieved on how a large number of people in China’s Guangdong province were falling ill.

She said it was only in January 2003 that the first English article was retrieved. “Even that didn’t mention an outbreak, but was about the increase in anti-viral drug sales by a pharmaceutical company. From that we deduced something unusual was going on.”

While the earlier GPHIN system worked, it required many analysts to review and make sense of information coming in. “The system was very cumbersome,” Mawudeku said.

Given the sheer volume of reports scanned, she said, it was only possible to translate the title, create a two-line summary of contents and send it to users. “We realized we needed a more efficient system…one capable of managing massive amounts of information, and assisting in its translation and timely dissemination.”

Nstein Technologies, she said, provided technology with these capabilities. “They had components that could organize unstructured information and translate it in near real time.”

According to Laurent Proux, chief technology officer, Nstein, GIIM is able to analyze news natively in the various languages, so there is no information loss.

GIIM’s value proposition, he said, is its ability to transform unstructured information to valuable business intelligence solutions.

This capability he said is being harnessed by several verticals — government, legal, defense, publishing, academia and more. “It helps these organizations move from a reactive to a proactive, and some cases, even to a predictive mode.”

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