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Pandemic or Panic? CABI Finds the Facts for Free on Swine Flu, aka H1N1
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Posted On May 7, 2009

CAB International (CABI; www.cabi.org), provider of the world's leading agricultural abstracting and indexing database, has a long tradition of gathering global health data. Of the almost 8.5 million items in the database, about 1.5 million fall into its Global Health database (www.cabdirect.org/globalhealth). Now, CABI has made that subscription database free for the duration of the swine flu crisis. Even more exciting, it has initiated a handsome mashup called the CABI Swine Flu Dashboard (www.netvibes.com/cabialerts), a mélange of key sources, facts, search strategies, topical maps, and other content selected by its expert content editors. This dashboard should solve a lot of problems for reference librarians, health professionals, the press, and anyone else addressing a nervous public. Other information industry firms and librarians are also stepping up to assist, e.g., Ovid Technologies (www.ovid.com), one of CABI's database hosts, which is owned by Wolters Kluwer Health.

This isn't the first time CABI has responded to international health crises. Robert Taylor, content manager for human, animal, and social science at CABI, pointed out their activities in past emergencies, such as mad cow, foot and mouth disease, the tsunami, etc. In fact, CABI was the first major database to track the AIDS disease when it was first discovered. Taylor traces CABI's full commitment to public health issues to the takeover of the Bureau of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases in the 1980s. "We have always covered health issues," says Taylor. "We covered parasitology and human nutrition even back to our roots. We had a foothold in human health areas and, when we took over the Bureau, we had sufficient data to make it interesting to medical librarians and the medical profession as a separate database." CABI also gathers veterinary research.

Influenza epidemics have hit the world periodically. CABI's Global Health database extends back to 1910, allowing researchers to tap historical data on the spread and distribution of past diseases and earlier attempts to solve the problem. The database is divided into two parts online: the "current" file dating back to 1973 and the archive extending from 1910 to 1972. According to Taylor, the site offers "prepared searches that somebody can go in and look at for different aspects, e.g., all swine flu or all flus or swine flu and humans." The free access extends to the full database, not just swine flu (known to experts as influenza A-H1N1), giving users an opportunity to test run the database for a wider range of uses. As for how long CABI would leave the Global Health database available for free, Taylor said that was "in the lap of the gods."

However, most users will probably turn to the Swine Flu Dashboard, which does link to the Global Health database. According to Shawn Hobbs, CABI's director of global content development, this is CABI's first experiment with a mashup of best sources and evaluated topical content. The success of this effort in terms of usage may decide whether any future such "dashboards" would be developed.

For a first effort, the Swine Flu Dashboard is certainly impressive. It links to a number of evaluated sources including selected abstracts from CABI databases; updates from its blog; feeds of information selected by subject experts; prepared searches for the Global Health database, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and World Health Organization updates; a link to Wikipedia's coverage, as well as Google search trend reports; and two excellent map visualizations of the status of the disease, as well as supportive statistics. It even feeds some data from CABI's Tourism Database for those whose travel plans have gone all askew. The site also includes some full text from arrangements with about 30 journals. At present, the full-text coverage includes about 5,000 items taken from the circa 50,000 full-text items included in the Global Health database, where, according to Hobbs, they have been accelerating full-text acquisition, particularly of gray literature.

David Smith, CABI's manager of business innovations and leading the dashboard development, stated that the goal in the development was to "fetch information in context, including information coming from other web sources, and to contextualize it and act as a filter, a good filter, to improve the signal-to-noise ratio given the huge explosion of information. Our idea was to make one place for people to go as a very, very, very good starting point for exploration of content and context." At the beginning of the dashboard service, Smith said CABI had included feeds from leading newspapers, but "we moved them out. We're trying to focus on information, the facts, rather than opinion or comments on sociological aspects."

The main CAB Direct service is scheduled for a platform upgrade, originally announced as coming in May, but now, according to Cristina Ashby, product development manager, scheduled for a launch in June at the annual SLA meeting. A beta version of the upgrade is available now at www.cabdirect2.org, but only for subscribers to the current CAB Direct service. Changes promised for the service include MyCABDirect, a personalized area for setting up email alerts and RSS feeds based on search results, saving searches, sharing search information, etc.; faceted searching that allows filtering using CABI's thesauri and metadata; browser toolbar widget for Internet Explorer 7 and above or Firefox browsers; suggestions for spelling variations; abstract snippet views; and viewing full text at the search results stage, saving searches to social bookmarking sites, etc. When the enhanced "CD2" platform (as it is known in-house) launches, Ashby says that the enhancements would also work for the free Global Health database.

CABI releases its database through nine database hosts: ProQuest's Dialog and DataStar, EBSCO, STN and Chemical Abstracts Service, DIMDI (Germany), Bath Information and Data Services (BIDS) in the U.K., Thomson Science's ISI, and Ovid Technologies. Ovid announced that it is also making CABI's Global Health database available free on its service, along with NLM's Medline database. However, the Ovid offer goes to hospitals and healthcare centers, both U.S. and international, and lasts 30 days.

UpToDate (www.uptodate.com), Ovid's sister company that covers current evidence-based clinical information, is also providing free access to professional and patient articles. The professional topics on H1N1 focus specifically on epidemiological aspects, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, while the patient topics provide information on symptoms and treatment. Staff librarians at Ovid have prepared extensive bibliographies of full-text resources on different aspects of influenza as well as sample searches.

These are not the only efforts being made during this medical crisis. The National Library of Medicine's National Center for Biotechnology Information (www.ncbi.nlm.gov) has two boxes on its homepage: one containing links to U.S. and international information sources, lists of things you can do, and how to plan and prepare for patients; and the other linking to the newest H1N1 influenza sequences, recent PubMed citations, MedlinePlus consumer health information, and Enviro-Health links.

And librarians are rising to the occasion too. David Dillard, librarian at Temple University's Paley Library, has set up search strategies on Google that can find publishers who are providing free articles on influenza. The link to these strategies is at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Net-Gold/message/28315.

Information professionals may not be able to cure a pandemic single-handedly, but it looks like they can certainly cure a panic.


Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

Email Barbara Quint

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Richard White6/18/2009 8:10:46 AM

Thank you for the free coverage! it was very important to have good and accurate information regarding the swine flu outbreak. The combination of expert commentary in Gale's Global Issues In Context database and CABI data allowed us to cut through the clutter and hype of media reports. We saw information days before other media outlets had it and in some cases the MSM had it wrong and then corrected themselves to the information provided by Gale and CABI! We made important business decisions about international travel during this period and both Gale and CABI gave us the information we needed. Thank you! And a big “thank you” to NewsBreaks too!

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