Senate approves disease surveillance bill

A worldwide disease surveillance system would be created under legislation the Senate passed just before it adjourned in December.

The bill, S. 2170, "seeks to establish a real-time, biological threat-detection system and improves the United States' ability to detect, identify, contain and respond to global biological events and potential bio-terror attacks," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and author of the bill, said in a statement upon Senate passage.

The measure calls for cooperation with the World Health Organization and individual nations to detect and contain disease outbreaks, such as the current avian flu. It would authorize financial assistance to developing nations for equipment to improve monitoring and reporting, and it would provide advanced training opportunities for public health employees.

The Senate passed the measure by voice vote late on Dec. 21. Information was not immediately available afterward. The bill text was not online, and lawmakers left town.

Under the legislation, the State Department could direct funding to developing nations to purchase communications equipment, computers and Internet services in an effort to detect and report biological threats. U.S. technology manufacturers would receive preferential treatment from developing nations as they purchase equipment.

To ensure that the equipment used by other nations and international organizations can work together, it would have to meet WHO standards. Moreover, the measure would provide technical and grant assistance to facilitate standardization in reporting public health information.

Eligible nations -- those willing to comply with WHO reporting standards-- would have to provide the infrastructure, technical personnel and other resources to receive aid.

The measure also would establish "priority" assistance for some nations, Frist said. For example, he said such aid would be provided for countries that let personnel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WHO to investigate disease outbreaks, that provide early notification" of the outbreaks and that share surveillance data with U.S. and world health groups.

The bill further would establish a fellowship program for people in developing countries to pursue graduate degrees in public health and advanced epidemiology. In return, they would have to agree to a four-year commitment to serve as a public health employee for the government or international health organization. Fellowships for U.S. citizens also would be offered.

The measure would authorize money for in-country training courses for laboratory technicians or other public health personnel. Under the measure, the CDC and Defense Department could expand U.S. laboratories abroad to implement on-site training.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-N.J., introduced similar legislation in 2002, but it never made it out of the Senate. The Frist-authored bill now goes to the House.

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