WASHINGTON – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using the Internet to help alert the public and health professionals to infectious diseases here and abroad.
The user-friendly home page highlights information such as how and why people are being infected with tuberculosis on commercial airlines.
It lists which cruise ships docking at major U.S. ports have failed health inspections and why.
And for travelers, maps identify known health risks by country and region, with dos and don’ts for prevention.
For example, malaria-carrying mosquitos are found throughout the world, but in some regions they have developed a resistance to some drugs.
Or those heading to Russia could take a virtual trip there first and learn that in 1994 diphtheria killed close to 1,750 people in the region. It continues to spread at epidemic proportions.
A simple sneeze transfers the airborne bacterial disease, which inflames the pharynx and, in extreme cases, suffocates its victims. The CDC tells visitors what to do to avoid getting the disease.
The site, put on-line in 1995, is growing in popularity. In December 1996 roughly 100,000 people visited the home page, at http://www.cdc.gov/. That’s compared to the 32,000 people who used it in August 1995, said Web master Michael Cox.
A flip side of the site, called Wonder, at http://wonder.cdc.gov/, is targeted to health professionals and is more difficult to use. It requires some background in the many manuals and reference materials listed, many with only their acronyms.
But for people such as Dr. Ronald Hattis, chief physician and public health officer at Patton State Hospital in California, the site is a breeze. That could account for the site’s popularity.
Wonder Web master Robert Thralls said the site, which functions as a data warehouse of CDC reports, was viewed 200,000 times during the last week of February. He said the site was used only 12,000 times during the same week last year.
Both health professionals and the general public can get reliable disease prevention guidelines and treatment information.
For example, anyone confronted with a sudden bout of E. coli – a deadly bacteria found in undercooked beef that causes internal hemorrhaging and kidney failure – can get treatment and prevention information within minutes.
Hattis said when he started seeing head lice resistant to the usual insecticidal shampoos, he went on-line and in minutes learned of a more effective treatment.
Although his 1,100-bed hospital does not have an Internet accessible computer, Hattis takes time to access the information through his home computer.
“CDC is the brain, the central repository of knowledge from all over the country,” Hattis said of the Atlanta-based agency.
But Hattis, who is in charge of infectious disease control for roughly 2 million people in the San Bernardino area, is concerned with the limitation of CDC’s new emphasis on the Web.
CDC has been providing health officials with free e-mail and software since the early 1990s, allowing them to communicate with each another and CDC officials in private. This has protected sensitive health information.
Thralls said that because the e-mail and software is expensive for CDC to maintain, it will be eliminating that service.
“Going out of the e-mail function to the Web site is a problem,” Hattis said. E-mail provides an instant and “valuable linkage” to thousands of hospitals and research centers.
Robert Chapman, Wonder’s creator, said CDC is working on securing sensitive information through special codes so that the interactive aspect of CDC software will be available through Wonder in the near future.
Other Wonder users are satisfied. Barbara Pearce is in charge of gathering data for the Violent Injury Prevention Center at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. She said Wonder is “inexpensive and almost immediate.”
“You’re talking about minutes to find information,” said Pearce, who compiles data on gun-related mortality. Instead of mailing in requests for CDC documents, a quick click on-line brings up volumes of data. -30-