New rapid sensor technology for early flu detection provides opportunities and problemsA rapid-sensing system could cover the shortcomings of slower, conventional bio-detection systems
By Doug Page
Recurring threats of flu pandemics expose the unpreparedness of the nation's healthcare system to meet a highly contagious infectious disease outbreak.
The shortcomings of conventional bio-detection systems include a slow rate of pathogen recognition, the inability to discriminate a full set of pathogenic versus nonpathogenic microorganisms in the environment, inadequate sensitivity, non-portability, a shortage of qualified personnel, and high costs of purchase, maintenance and operation.
The implementation of a rapid-sensing system for early detection of influenza-like illness provides a solution, but such a system has yet to be designed. Still, some researchers are already looking at what would happen if a rapid-sensor network were to be implemented.
"Our research looked at the strategic, procedural and operational effects of implementing a rapid sensor technology," said Ipek Bozkurt, a professor of engineering management at the University of Houston — Clear Lake.
In other words, how would a rapid sensor system affect standard operating procedures in the medical, business, government and military sectors?
Bozkurt said the problem is complex and was approached using systems analysis and risk management. She and colleagues at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va., suggested approaching the problem from various perspectives.
Ariel Pinto, an Old Dominion professor of engineering management and systems engineering, said employing multi-disciplinary risk management allows planners to more efficiently allocate resources to mitigate a flu pandemic.
The researchers also propose a family of affordable rapid-sensor technologies to accelerate detection and diagnosis of flu-type illnesses, specifically in hospital emergency departments. The proposal is likewise relevant to homeland security at border checkpoints, as well as in biological and chemical warfare scenarios.
"Since time is of utmost importance during the early stages of a pandemic, positive diagnosis, followed by isolation, should be established as soon as the virus is detected," Pinto said.
Bozkurt said a rapid-sensor device could be installed in a hospital emergency room. Then, instead of the traditional steps of physical examination, throat culture and waiting days for lab results and diagnosis, the sensor would instantly identify whether the patient was carrying an influenza-like illness and, if necessary, issue an alert so proper isolation protocols could be initiated.
The types of technologies the researchers propose take advantage of recent developments in the areas of remote sensing and chemical detection. Pinto said other factors important in this solution are advanced manufacturing and packaging methods, so the sensors can be cheaply produced and distributed in large enough numbers to increase detection success rates.
Bozkurt told Homeland1 that rapid sensor technology presents application alternatives for homeland security, one of the most important being border entry points.
"Rapid sensor technology would enable health officials at certain entry points to assure that individuals who need medical help are served and any flu-type illnesses are detected early to prevent a pandemic," she said.
Bozkurt said that in this arena, a network of sensors could be used to help organize and plan efficient allocation and use of limited resources, as well as assist in timely and accurate decisions.
In addition to the original purpose of early detection of flu-type illnesses, the sensor technology could be modified and adopted for detecting possible chemical weapon threats, either for a vast geographical area, or during close encounter combat.