UB Creates "Population Health Observatory" to Conduct Regional Bioterrorism Surveillance, Document Health Trends

By Lois Baker

Release Date: February 28, 2003

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The University at Buffalo is establishing one of the first local health surveillance systems in the United States, which aims to do for the eight counties comprising Western New York what state health departments do statewide and the Centers for Disease Control does for the nation.

Called the Western New York Population Health Observatory, it will serve two parallel functions: establish a bioterrorism surveillance system to monitor unusual patterns of illness, and conduct ongoing health surveillance to develop the "big picture" regionally and identify long-term health patterns.

The health observatory is a major component of UB's newly organized School of Public Health and Health Professions, the only public-health school in New York State west of Albany.

"The CDC has encouraged localities to establish health surveillance systems, but the limited amount of funds available to support such initiatives have hindered these efforts," said Christopher Sempos, Ph.D., UB professor of social and preventive medicine and director of the observatory.

"We are creating a regional surveillance system that will supplement current local, state and federal efforts, and will be an integrated, unbiased and timely public-health data resource for all people," Sempos said. "We believe this project could be a model for developing local and regional surveillance systems throughout the United States."

Sempos, who came to UB in 1999 from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, where he was director of longitudinal studies, is well acquainted with the problems localities face in tracking the health of citizens.

"It's extremely unusual, outside of the CDC or state-health-department level, to find professional health surveillance," Sempos said. "Local officials often have limited or no resources

for analyzing the data they've collected on the burden of disease in their areas, which is limited primarily to birth, marriage, divorce and death records.

"Collecting additional health data to fill in the gaps often is beyond the resources of the local and state health departments. Neither the state nor the county has the resources to do the kind of local surveillance they would like to do. This is one of the reasons the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions is getting involved.

"I don't know of any other instance where a university and county health departments are partnering to set up such a system," Sempos added.

The observatory has three major components: public-health surveillance and research, community involvement and education of public-health professionals in health surveillance. It is designed to involve all eight county health departments in the region, as well as the New York State Health Department's regional office, local health-care providers and lawmakers, and the community at large.

The observatory already is under contract with the Erie County Health Department to assist with two major projects: establishing a bioterrorism surveillance system and conducting a state-mandated community health assessment. Peter Rogerson, Ph.D., UB professor of geography, and investigators at the Calspan UB Research Center (CUBRC), also will participate in both projects.

Setting up a bioterrorism surveillance system will involve developing a consistent set of reporting standards; assisting in data collection, analysis and evaluation, and serving as the data repository. Observatory researchers will monitor any unusual concentration of illness. As a case in point, organisms of bioterrorism often produce flu-like symptoms, said Sempos, so a significant outbreak of the flu would merit close scrutiny. This type of surveillance also would allow researchers to track long-term trends in deaths from influenza and pneumonia, he noted.

The detailed county health assessment to be conducted in 2004 requires analysis and assessment of a set of core public-health indicators. UB researchers will assess the current data, identify gaps and provide technical assistance in data analysis and interpretation. This data also will be stored at the observatory, where UB researchers will develop statistical methods for its evaluation and have access to the information for longitudinal studies.

In three years, Sempos hopes to have all eight Western New York counties feeding data to the observatory for analysis and research. Plans call for using this information to provide periodic morbidity and mortality reports focusing on local and U.S.-Canadian-border health issues. Observatory staff also plans to produce a yearly report of local health statistics similar to the annual report on the nation's health issued by the National Center for Health Statistics.