International Journal of Health Geographics

, 2:8

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Initiating informatics and GIS support for a field investigation of Bioterrorism: The New Jersey anthrax experience

  • Juan Carlos ZubietaAffiliated withFormer address:Division of Public Health Surveillance and Informatics (DPHSI), Epidemiology Program Office (EPO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Department of Medicine 1500 Lansdowne Ave, Mercy Catholic Medical Center Email author 
  • , Ric SkinnerAffiliated withNew Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (NJDHSS)Present address, Health Geographics & Spatial Analysis Program, Baystate Medical Center
  • , Andrew G DeanAffiliated withDPHSI, EPO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, EpiInformatics



The investigation of potential exposure to anthrax spores in a Trenton, New Jersey, mail-processing facility required rapid assessment of informatics needs and adaptation of existing informatics tools to new physical and information-processing environments. Because the affected building and its computers were closed down, data to list potentially exposed persons and map building floor plans were unavailable from the primary source.


Controlling the effects of anthrax contamination required identification and follow-up of potentially exposed persons. Risk of exposure had to be estimated from the geographic relationship between work history and environmental sample sites within the contaminated facility. To assist in establishing geographic relationships, floor plan maps of the postal facility were constructed in ArcView Geographic Information System (GIS) software and linked to a database of personnel and visitors using Epi Info and Epi Map 2000. A repository for maintaining the latest versions of various documents was set up using Web page hyperlinks.


During public health emergencies, such as bioterrorist attacks and disease epidemics, computerized information systems for data management, analysis, and communication may be needed within hours of beginning the investigation. Available sources of data and output requirements of the system may be changed frequently during the course of the investigation. Integrating data from a variety of sources may require entering or importing data from a variety of digital and paper formats. Spatial representation of data is particularly valuable for assessing environmental exposure. Written documents, guidelines, and memos important to the epidemic were frequently revised. In this investigation, a database was operational on the second day and the GIS component during the second week of the investigation.