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PulseNet: The Futuristic Technology Held Back by Yesterday’s Procedures

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The salmonella outbreak in peanut butter products has grabbed the attention of the world. But it is the system that alerted U.S. health officials that should be studied. PulseNet is a national network of public health laboratories. Labs in every state and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention work together to track cases of food poisoning in an effort to detect and prevent widespread sickness.

It was launched in 1996 because of an 1993 outbreak of E. coli in the western U.S. By 2002, every state was participating. This great system is very simple. When somebody goes to a doctor with food poisoning, if the doctor runs a test to determine which infection the patient has, that data is added to the PulseNet listserv WebBoard. Officials now have a “fingerprint” of the infection and can track where it goes based on multiple listings on WebBoard.

There are, of course, a few problems with the system. For one, many people don’t go to the doctor for food poisoning. Another one, many doctors do not take the medical tests that will identify the infection. Even if both of those things occur, investigators will not know what caused the illness until interviews are taken with the patients.

It is a successful program that prevents contamination and saves lives, but it is only as good as the people who use it, or don’t use it, as the case may be. A collaborative system of communication in cases such as these are the wave of the future, but they are being implemented while many clinics still operate under nineteenth century procedures. Florida, for example, does not require doctors to send salmonella samples to state labs for analysis.

This system costs the CDC and the individual states money to run, but in the end it is worth the price. I look forward to this and other systems being used to their full potential to protect consumers from disease and death.