Lesson 5: Public Health Surveillance

This is an online version of a printed textbook. It is not intended to be an online course.

Refer to the book or to the electronic PDF version (511 pages) for printable versions of text, figures, and tables.


The health department is responsible for protecting the public’s health, but how does it learn about cases of communicable diseases from which the public might need protection? How might health officials track behaviors that place citizens at increased risk of heart disease or diabetes? If a highly publicized mass gathering potentially attracts terrorists (e.g., a championship sporting event or political convention), how might a health department detect the presence of biologic agents or the outbreak of a disease the agent might cause?

The answer is public health surveillance.


After studying this lesson and answering the questions in the exercises, you will be able to:

  • Define public health surveillance
  • List the essential activities of surveillance
  • List the desirable characteristics of well-conducted surveillance activities
  • Describe sources of data and data systems commonly used for public health surveillance
  • Describe the principal methods of analyzing and presenting surveillance data
  • Describe selected examples of surveillance in the United States
  • Given a scenario and a specific health problem, design a plan for conducting surveillance of the problem

Major Sections

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