After an unexplained outbreak of Swine Flu in Mexico City that claimed hundreds of victims, and several confirmed cases throughout the U.S., the NIH and the CDC declared a “national health emergency” on April 26th. Twenty cases of Swine Flue have been confirmed so far in the United States, spanning New York, Kansas, California, Texas and Ohio.  Many of those who contracted the illness had recently visited Mexico.

President Obama said the declaration was “precautionary” and represented no need for alarm. Speaking at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, he said he was confident in the government’s ability to handle the Flu, but he said the situation calls attention to the need to not let funding into epidemiological and other medical research wane, as it has in recent years.

What he did not discuss is how the current outbreak underscores the need for a national EHR system – which could be used to track, monitor, and control the spread of such ravenous infectious diseases. Not doing so represents a missed opportunity, given his mandate for EHRs in the Stimulus Plan.

In a report published in Healthcare IT News last year entitled “Germs Go Global – Why Emerging Infectious Diseases Are a Threat to America” – Kathleen Gensheimer, an epidemiologist with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Infectious Diseases, said, “Epidemics, pandemics and other public health emergencies require a solid public health laboratory diagnostic and epidemiological surveillance system to detect aberrance in disease trends.” A National Health Information Network (NHIN) that leverages state of the art interconnected EHRs, would provide such a surveillance system.

A study published in 2008, Automated Identification of Acute Hepatitis B Using Electronic Medical Record Data to Facilitate Public Health Surveillance, proved how this can work. The study, conducted in part by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Harvard Medical School, concluded, “electronic medical record data can reliably detect acute hepatitis B. The completeness of public health surveillance may be improved by automatically identifying notifiable diseases from electronic medical record data.”

Given the 19 Billion dollars for EHR implementation and Healthcare IT in the HITECH Act, it would seem the U.S. has a golden opportunity to create such a national system. Once established, a NHIN could put the U.S. at the forefront of tracking existing and emerging microbial threats, and take a lead role in preventing epidemics on a global scale.

However, the current outbreak of Swine Flu indicates just how loudly the clock may be ticking…