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April 29, 2009

Companies Utilize “˜Cyber-Chatter’ To Predict Global Epidemics

Eighteen days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization posted its first public report on April 24 on the swine flu cases, a 2-year-old company with less than 50 employees had already sounded an alarm on the growing number of unusual respiratory illness associated with Mexico.

Veratect Inc. is a 2-year-old company with less than 50 employees that boasts a revolutionary fusion of human and synthetic intelligence for tracking emerging biological risks as well as civil unrest on a global scale. Subscribing clients are able to access the information and ranking of severity on a Web portal for early warnings.

Veratect works on the basis of utilizing social networking sites, Twitter feeds, news media and government websites by sifting through and analyzing the data that they believe will assist public health agencies in responding quickly to public safety issues.

More than 4,000 people signed up to receive a publicly posted timeline of the outbreak and short reports on Veratect's Twitter alerts.

Skeptics question whether the companies are able to detect meaningful signals through all the online "chatter" or whether they are mainly able to pinpoint such patterns after the fact. Veratect does encourage confidence considering their reluctance to qualify their work by disclosing sources or methodology.

What is vaguely understood about the company's method is that they scan the web for unordinary reports and unearthed clues and then flag the most alarming ones with a team of about 30 analysts, many of which are multilingual and hold public health degrees.

Chief executive of Veratect Inc., Robert Hart, claims that the company alerted clients to a potentially severe outbreak before the general public had heard anything about the swine flu.

Veratect refers to a report posted to clients on April 6 about the unusual number of respiratory illnesses in the Mexican state of Veracruz. They had also sent out an email on April 16 to the Centers for Disease Control noting an atypical pneumonia in Oaxaca state once officials there had issued an alert.

On April 6, Mexican media sources reported a Veracruz community claiming that waste from a neighboring pig farm was to blame for the outbreak of respiratory illness, providing the first key clue.

One indication of strange events is "playing the blame game", said Dr. James Wilson, Veratect's chief scientist. When the company initially posted the La Gloria information, it was considered a matter of "moderate severity". La Gloria is now considered a swine flu "hot-spot".

Realistically, some of the information discovered by Veratect was not related to the outbreak. Veratect had informed its clients about a Canadian lawyer who was hospitalized shortly after a trip to Mexico, but he soon tested negative for swine flu.

Undeterred by the possibility for error, clients such as World Vision, the large Christian humanitarian organization based in Federal Way, are still willing to pay Veratect for its intelligence reports.

World Vision has even been known to organize aid around Veratect's predictions. According to Brian Carlson, the head of technology for World Vision's global relief efforts, they recently moved education staffers and transported resources such as water purification tablets to areas Veratect believes may experience cholera outbreaks.

A rival to Veratect, 10-year-old company iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, also predicts and monitors emerging health risks, civil unrest and even issues of telecommunication outages. iJet's chief operating officer, Marty Pfinsgraff claims that they had advised clients to cancel unnecessary travel to Mexico and to begin making pandemic plans last Friday before health officials had made any public statement.

Other similar groups focus primarily on disease. ProMed, a system designed by the Federation of American Scientists, lets human, animal and plant specialists share a global exchange of information relating to infectious disease.

Data is gathered from ProMed, the CDC and the World Health Organization and then compiled by a site called HealthMap. Also, a volunteer-built site called FluWiki has tracked bird flu since 2005, and last year Google Inc. launched Flu Trends, which determines flu conditions in the U.S by noting increases in flu-themed Web searches.

When a parasite slipped through Milwaukee's water treatment system in 1993, drugstores alerted city health officials that they were selling out of diarrhea medication. With so many cases like these, specialists find it difficult to ignore the value of the information despite its unscientific, community-based nature.

Some public health experts maintain that companies like Veratect should not be relied upon for drawing solid conclusions about matters of such importance.

Public health expert at Vanderbilt University and spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America, Dr. William Schaffner says, "They are considered interesting, unofficial, instructive, imaginative, and then I would go back and emphasize unofficial."

The head of CDC's international swine flu team, Dr. Scott Dowell said that the agency finds the reports incredibly useful when monitoring outbreaks and sensitive threats around the world.

Others caution that it could be dangerous to act too quickly on early signals. Without positive lab tests, panic surrounding a new illness may cause uninfected people to think they have the symptoms, rendering reports of new cases unreliable.

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