Detecting Disease 24/7: On the Lookout for Health Threats Across the Globe

The Global Disease Detection (GDD) Operations Center Team

Luanda, Angola, where, thanks in part to CDC's work, six million people were vaccinated for yellow fever. Photo: Justin Williams, CDC

Luanda, Angola, where, thanks in part to CDC’s work, six million people were vaccinated for yellow fever. Photo: Justin Williams

In December 2015, four men who lived, worked, and ate in one neighborhood in Angola developed the same symptoms and died. Our team at the Global Disease Detection (GDD) Operations Center received a tip from the CDC country office in Angola and quickly brought together experts from around CDC to help determine the cause.

The Angola Ministry of Health soon confirmed the outbreak as yellow fever and requested assistance from CDC. Within two weeks, we assembled and deployed a response team. To date, we have supported more than 30 CDC responders who are actively working to stop the outbreak in Angola.

Here in the GDD Operations Center, we’re always watching for information that might require action. We conduct event-based surveillance, which means we get our reports from all kinds of sources – not just through traditional channels like hospitals and health departments. Working 24/7 to detect disease, we sleuth through unofficial, unstructured channels worldwide. We surf the web, read blogs containing health-related information, and use advanced internet text-mining systems to help relevant reports get pushed directly to us. We also scan Twitter and, in some instances, can use it as an early source of information for a developing emergency.

Surrounded by computer and television screens, our team of epidemiologists monitors a wide range of health threats, including diseases and deaths among both people and animals, issues with contaminated food or water, and chemical and radioactive incidents. This real-time detection enables CDC to assess the risk to public safety quickly and to respond appropriately to health threats.

Not all information comes in a tidy report, especially for unfolding outbreaks and emergencies. When unconfirmed reports of disease or rumors of unexplained deaths reach CDC’s GDD Operations Center, it’s our team’s job to find out if there’s an epidemic in the making.