The cutting-edge counter-terrorism tool deployed to keep us safe
Jul 14, 2016 | News | by The Learning Press staff
A world-leading algorithm developed by Australian defence force scientists to detect bio-terrorism will be used to forecast our next flu epidemic.
The new tool can accurately predict outbreaks up to eight weeks in advance, giving health professionals a better chance of minimising the impact of the bug.
The system has been adopted by the Victorian department of health and is being experimentally deployed across NSW and QLD with the aim of a rollout across most of Australia ahead of next year’s flu season.
The algorithm, known as EpiDefend, has been developed using data from lab flu cases, GP reports and other environmental data such as humidity.
It strengthens the reliability, accuracy and timeliness of detecting a naturally-occurring flu outbreak and helps differentiate it from purposely-released biological agents.
Defence scientist Tony Lau said: “Until now we’ve been focused on developing in-house skills in the detection and forecasting of naturally-occurring diseases as well as agents that might be used in bioterrorism.
”Exposure to many conventional bio attack agents will initially present in victims as showing similar symptoms to an influenza-like illness infection, it is imperative we develop capabilities that can clearly differentiate between an outbreak of naturally occurring ILI infections and a biological attack.”
Lau says the challenge confronting defence scientists has always been access to the confidential health and disease data needed for forecasting.
But, he says, a collaboration with the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health has allowed a more detailed analysis of health data and created the potential for a flu early warning system.
“Our team was the first in the world to apply particle filters to disease forecasting, and the combination of techniques used in EpiDefend makes it a world-leading innovation,” he said.
“Given the exponential increase in electronic data collection and our algorithm’s ability to dig into these very rich streams of information, the approach has the potential to provide a breakthrough in disease forecasting.”
The group’s work was recently recognised with a $1 million research grant from the US Department of Defense Coalition Warfare Program.
”Our team’s goal is dual-purpose,” said Lau.
“We want to fulfil our defence charter, protecting our forces against intentionally released biological agents, but disease forecasting will also support the national security and public health areas.
“It’s exciting and busy times, and we are ready to contribute to the development of a national and global bio-surveillance system.”