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Epidemiology used to be a geeky backwater with the focus falling mostly on diseases from the developing world, for example, HIV, TB, and Malaria. Because of the pandemic, the focus shifted, and health is now in front of everyone’s mind. In this article, we take a closer look at this unique science and why it’s worth our attention.

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What Is Epidemiology?

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People often refer to epidemiology as the basic science of public health, and with good reason. It’s a branch of medicine that studies factors that impact the outcome of health and disease conditions in a group, including:

  • The distribution of diseases
  • The underlying cause or source
  • Methods for disease control

It’s a unique field of study because it entails an understanding of how social, scientific, and political factors intersect. It also looks at how these factors change disease risks.

Despite the solid foundation in science, some argue it’s not ‘true’ science, merely a tool for other disciplines. And because epidemiological data depend on observations, others say it’s a form of journalism rather than a science.

But, it’s data-driven and relies on an unbiased and systematic approach to the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data. So it’s as much a science as any other field using the same principles.

People often refer to epidemiology as the basic science of public health, and with good reason. It’s a branch of medicine that studies factors that impact the outcome of health and disease conditions in a group, including:

  • The distribution of diseases
  • The underlying cause or source
  • Methods for disease control

It’s a unique field of study because it entails an understanding of how social, scientific, and political factors intersect. It also looks at how these factors change disease risks.

Despite the solid foundation in science, some argue it’s not ‘true’ science, merely a tool for other disciplines. And because epidemiological data depend on observations, others say it’s a form of journalism rather than a science.

But, it’s data-driven and relies on an unbiased and systematic approach to the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data. So it’s as much a science as any other field using the same principles.

When Did Epidemiology Begin?

Epidemiological thinking has been around in one form or another for almost 2500 years. But the field as we know it today only took shape after World War 2.

Hippocrates was the first to suggest factors, such as environment and behaviors, might affect the risk of disease.

In 1662, John Graunt was the first to quantify birth, death, and disease occurrence patterns. He also noted disparities between men and women, urban and rural settings, and seasonal shifts.

Most people, however, regard Jonh Snow to be the father of epidemiology because of his studies on cholera. Twenty years before the microscope, he led studies on the cause and prevention of the disease.

He started his research by looking at where cholera patients live and work. And because he believed water to cause the infection, he marked the site of every water pump on a map. Based on this and interviews with residents, he reasoned the contaminated pump was in Broad Street. He also looked at historical data and found patterns in the prior cholera outbreak.

John Snow founded the series of steps used by current-day epidemiologists to study disease outbreaks. Snow formed a testable hypothesis based on a group’s traits at risk by time, place, and person. Next, he tested his theory with a well-designed study, ensuring that the groups were comparable. After this study, authorities directed disease control efforts by changing the origin of water to avoid contamination sources.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, epidemiologists extended their studies to include non-infectious diseases. They also improved study methods and the theoretical bases of epidemiology.

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What Public Health Problems or Events Do Epidemiologists Study?

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We often link this field with infectious diseases, but epidemiologists look at a much broader range of problems.

Diseases

Epidemiologists examine both infectious and non-infectious diseases, for instance:

  • Foodborne illness
  • Increases in a particular type of cancer
  • Lifestyle diseases such as obesity and heart disease
  • Ebola outbreaks
  • HIV
  • Drug-resistant TB

Natural Disasters and Climate

Another area of interest is natural disasters and the effect it has on public health. Epidemiology may also be the key to understanding the impact of climate change on disease dynamics.

Injuries

In the 1980s, epidemiologists extended their studies to include violence and injuries. For example, they study the rise of homicides or domestic violence for a distinct community.

Environmental Exposures

Epidemiologists study the effect of pollutants and other environmental factors, such as heavy metals, on a population’s health.

Genetics

Studies look at genetic and molecular fields, as well. More specifically, scientists study the impact of pathways, molecules, and genes on the risk of developing diseases.

Terrorism

After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the field expanded to include biological warfare and the deliberate spread of infectious agents through bioterrorism.

Why Is Epidemiology Important?

Epidemiology is a cornerstone in guiding public health policies. At its core, epidemiology solves problems. And as a result, it saves millions of lives through interventions and prevention programs.

Besides, we can’t overlook the effects on life quality and longevity. Thanks to this discipline, the average life expectancy for people in the United States rose by 25 years since 1947.

Even more significantly, epidemiology predicts epidemics and pandemics by identifying:

  • Diseases most likely to cause outbreaks
  • Groups most at risks
  • Possible interventions to minimize deaths

In short, epidemiology is a multidisciplinary and intricate approach to the study of public health. It looks at many variables, such as social and political dynamics, travel patterns, pathogens, and the climate. Finally, it uses the data to find solutions and prevent future health problems.

Where do you think epidemiology makes the biggest impact? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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