ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.--As part of a Sandia National Laboratories-led effort to create a worldwide disease tracking network, hospital emergency rooms in three New Mexico cities and in a formerly secret Russian city this week began gathering and posting on the Internet information about an emerging disease, hepatitis C, that physicians say could have major world health implications.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 3.9 million Americans are chronically infected with hepatitis C. New Mexico health officials believe up to 2 percent of the state's population has the disease.
Yet very little is known about hepatitis C risk factors--behaviors that increase the probability that a person will contract the disease. The hope is that by sharing information about who gets the virus and how it is transmitted, physicians can better understand how to prevent its spread.
The primary goal of the international project, though, is to show how monitoring unusual outbreaks of disease can serve as a worldwide early-warning system for covert biological weapons development.
Sandia scientists have proposed setting up an online health information exchange that would rely on thousands of doctors worldwide sharing disease information about their patients. By keeping an eye on unusual outbreaks, and by asking nations that censor the sharing of health information to explain themselves, the scientists believe an effective "transparency regime" can be created for international treaties such as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which forbids experimentation or acquisition of biological agents or toxins for military purposes.
"We think investigating unusual outbreaks of disease may be the best way to catch a cheater," says Al Zelicoff of Sandia's Nonproliferation Initiatives Department.
The hepatitis C project is the first step in demonstrating how such a system might work.