Early Detection of Influenza Outbreaks Using the DC Department of Health's Syndromic Surveillance System

Published In: BMC Public Health, v. 9, Dec. 22, 2009, p. 483-500

Posted on RAND.org on December 01, 2009

by Beth Ann Griffin, Arvind Jain, John O. Davies-Cole, Chevelle Glymph, Garret Lum, Samuel C Washington, Michael A. Stoto

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BACKGROUND: Since 2001, the District of Columbia Department of Health has been using an emergency room syndromic surveillance system to identify possible disease outbreaks. Data are received from a number of local hospital emergency rooms and analyzed daily using a variety of statistical detection algorithms. The aims of this paper are to characterize the performance of these statistical detection algorithms in rigorous yet practical terms in order to identify the optimal parameters for each and to compare the ability of two syndrome definition criteria and data from a children's hospital versus vs. other hospitals to determine the onset of seasonal influenza. METHODS: We first used a fine-tuning approach to improve the sensitivity of each algorithm to detecting simulated outbreaks and to identifying previously known outbreaks. Subsequently, using the fine-tuned algorithms, we examined (i) the ability of unspecified infection and respiratory syndrome categories to detect the start of the flu season and (ii) how well data from Children's National Medical Center (CNMC) did versus all the other hospitals when using unspecified infection, respiratory, and both categories together. RESULTS: Simulation studies using the data showed that over a range of situations, the multivariate CUSUM algorithm performed more effectively than the other algorithms tested. In addition, the parameters that yielded optimal performance varied for each algorithm, especially with the number of cases in the data stream. In terms of detecting the onset of seasonal influenza, only "unspecified infection," especially the counts from CNMC, clearly delineated influenza outbreaks out of the eight available syndromic classifications. In three of five years, CNMC consistently flags earlier (from 2 days up to 2 weeks earlier) than a multivariate analysis of all other DC hospitals. CONCLUSIONS: When practitioners apply statistical detection algorithms to their own data, fine tuning of parameters is necessary to improve overall sensitivity. With fined tuned algorithms, our results suggest that emergency room based syndromic surveillance focusing on unspecified infection cases in children is an effective way to determine the beginning of the influenza outbreak and could serve as a trigger for more intensive surveillance efforts and initiate infection control measures in the community.

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