April 14, 2009

Anthrax attack impact now predictable

British scientists say they've created a statistical method that can estimate the origin and time of an aerosolized release of the pathogen causing anthrax.

The technology, to be used following detection of the first few cases, has been developed by researchers from the Center for Outbreak Analysis and Modeling at Imperial College London in collaboration with the Health Protection Agency's Microbial Risk Assessment group.

The researchers said their method, which predicts where the most critically affected areas will be following the release of the highly pathogenic agent, might enable preventative treatment of individuals at risk and protection from the disease. Previously published methods can estimate the date and scale of anthrax release but not the source location or geographic extent of human exposure, the scientists said.

It is critical to treat people as soon as possible after exposure to anthrax, said Judith Legrand, lead author of the study from the Center for Outbreak Analysis and Modeling. While forecasts based on small numbers of early cases are less reliable than those obtained later in an outbreak, we show that treating individuals based on early estimates is still likely to save lives overall.

The study appears in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.