Lesson 1: Introduction to Epidemiology

Section 3: Uses

Epidemiology and the information generated by epidemiologic methods have been used in many ways.(9) Some common uses are described below.

Assessing the community’s health

Public health officials responsible for policy development, implementation, and evaluation use epidemiologic information as a factual framework for decision making. To assess the health of a population or community, relevant sources of data must be identified and analyzed by person, place, and time (descriptive epidemiology).

  • What are the actual and potential health problems in the community?
  • Where are they occurring?
  • Which populations are at increased risk?
  • Which problems have declined over time?
  • Which ones are increasing or have the potential to increase?
  • How do these patterns relate to the level and distribution of public health services available?

More detailed data may need to be collected and analyzed to determine whether health services are available, accessible, effective, and efficient. For example, public health officials used epidemiologic data and methods to identify baselines, to set health goals for the nation in 2000 and 2010, and to monitor progress toward these goals.(10, 11, 12)

Making individual decisions

Many individuals may not realize that they use epidemiologic information to make daily decisions affecting their health. When persons decide to quit smoking, climb the stairs rather than wait for an elevator, eat a salad rather than a cheeseburger with fries for lunch, or use a condom, they may be influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by epidemiologists’ assessment of risk. Since World War II, epidemiologists have provided information related to all those decisions. In the 1950s, epidemiologists reported the increased risk of lung cancer among smokers. In the 1970s, epidemiologists documented the role of exercise and proper diet in reducing the risk of heart disease. In the mid-1980s, epidemiologists identified the increased risk of HIV infection associated with certain sexual and drug-related behaviors. These and hundreds of other epidemiologic findings are directly relevant to the choices people make every day, choices that affect their health over a lifetime.

Completing the clinical picture

When investigating a disease outbreak, epidemiologists rely on health-care providers and laboratorians to establish the proper diagnosis of individual patients. But epidemiologists also contribute to physicians’ understanding of the clinical picture and natural history of disease. For example, in late 1989, a physician saw three patients with unexplained eosinophilia (an increase in the number of a specific type of white blood cell called an eosinophil) and myalgias (severe muscle pains). Although the physician could not make a definitive diagnosis, he notified public health authorities. Within weeks, epidemiologists had identified enough other cases to characterize the spectrum and course of the illness that came to be known as eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome.(13) More recently, epidemiologists, clinicians, and researchers around the world have collaborated to characterize SARS, a disease caused by a new type of coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2002.(14) Epidemiology has also been instrumental in characterizing many non-acute diseases, such as the numerous conditions associated with cigarette smoking — from pulmonary and heart disease to lip, throat, and lung cancer.

Searching for causes

Much epidemiologic research is devoted to searching for causal factors that influence one’s risk of disease. Ideally, the goal is to identify a cause so that appropriate public health action might be taken. One can argue that epidemiology can never prove a causal relationship between an exposure and a disease, since much of epidemiology is based on ecologic reasoning. Nevertheless, epidemiology often provides enough information to support effective action. Examples date from the removal of the handle from the Broad St. pump following John Snow’s investigation of cholera in the Golden Square area of London in 1854, (5) to the withdrawal of a vaccine against rotavirus in 1999 after epidemiologists found that it increased the risk of intussusception, a potentially life-threatening condition.(15) Just as often, epidemiology and laboratory science converge to provide the evidence needed to establish causation. For example, epidemiologists were able to identify a variety of risk factors during an outbreak of pneumonia among persons attending the American Legion Convention in Philadelphia in 1976, even though the Legionnaires’ bacillus was not identified in the laboratory from lung tissue of a person who had died from Legionnaires’ disease until almost 6 months later.(16)

Pencil graphic Exercise 1.2

In August 1999, epidemiologists learned of a cluster of cases of encephalitis caused by West Nile virus infection among residents of Queens, New York. West Nile virus infection, transmitted by mosquitoes, had never before been identified in North America.

Describe how this information might be used for each of the following:

  1. Assessing the community’s health
  2. Making decisions about individual patients
  3. Documenting the clinical picture of the illness
  4. Searching for causes to prevent future outbreaks

Check your answer.

References (This Section)

  1. Morris JN. Uses of epidemiology. Edinburgh: Livingstone; 1957.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Healthy people 2000: national health promotion and disease prevention objectives. Washington, DC: HHS, Public Health Service; 1991.
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Healthy people 2010. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO); November 2000.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Tracking healthy people 2010. Washington, DC: GPO; November 2000.
  5. Eidson M, Philen RM, Sewell CM, Voorhees R, Kilbourne EM. L-tryptophan and eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome in New Mexico. Lancet 1990;335:645–8.
  6. Kamps BS, Hoffmann C, editors. SARS Reference, 3rd ed. Flying Publisher, 2003. Available from: http://www.sarsreference.com/index.htm.
  7. Murphy TV, Gargiullo PM, Massoudi MS, et al. Intussusception among infants given an oral rotavirus vaccine. N Eng J Med 2001;344:564–72.
  8. Fraser DW, Tsai TR, Orenstein W, Parkin WE, Beecham HJ, Sharrar RG, et al. Legionnaires’ disease: description of an epidemic of pneumonia. New Engl J Med 1977; 297:1189–97.
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