Epidemiology is not a term you hear very often. For many persons, the coronavirus pandemic (popularly called “COVID 19”) was the first time they got to hear about epidemiology and uncontrolled disease. This era came with the introduction of words and phrases such as “transmission,” “incubation period,” “contact tracing,” and “herd immunity” into the public lexicon and vernacular.
But for professionals trained in epidemiology, these ideas are not alien or novel. Rather, they are the set-piece of epidemiology, and a pandemic is exactly what they’ve been prepared for. People trained in the field of epidemiology are known as Epidemiologists.
Epidemiologists have historically performed essential work to protect and improve the health of populations, whether it is neighborhoods, cities, countries, or continents.
Epidemiologists are important in mapping and understanding the varied effects of the coronavirus pandemic. However, their work extends beyond novel viruses and pandemics. So, what is this unique field? And how do epidemiologists approach issues in public health? These questions and more are answered in this article. So, brace up and read this article to the end.
What is Epidemiology?
Epidemiology is the root or foundation of public health. it is the study of the “distribution and determinants” of diseases or disorders within groups of people, and the advancement of knowledge on how to prevent and control these diseases and disorders. What is more, epidemiological research helps us to understand not the carriers of a disorder or disease but why and how these individuals or regions contracted such disorder or disease.
Epidemiological activities is as old as ancient civilization. One of the earliest examples of modern epidemiology is traced to an 1854 cholera outbreak in London. During this outbreak, doctors believed the widespread illness must have been airborne, but Dr. John Snow, widely considered to be the father of epidemiology, adopted an unconventional kind of approach and perspective. By carefully mapping the outbreak and analyzing those who were infected, Snow was able to associate every cholera case to a single water pump at the intersection of Broad and Cambridge Streets (now Lexington Street) in London’s Soho neighborhood. The removal of the pump stopped the disease in its tracks—laying the basis of today’s epidemiological practices.
Today, epidemiologists use the evidence and conclusions gathered in their research to determine how illness within a population affects our society and systems on a larger scale. With the information gathered, they provide recommendations for interventions, such as removing a fatal water pump.
With the advent of the coronavirus which has became widespread globally, epidemiologists around the world have assiduously worked to control the spread.
The Columbia Mailman Faculty of the Columbia University has also initiated a research to contribute to the eradication and control of the spread of diseases. The research is primarily intended to help the better understanding of the coronavirus and how it is transmitted; to project its spread and identify vulnerable communities; to develop diagnostic tests and therapies; and, to assess the U.S. and global health systems’ preparedness.
Types of epidemiology
There are various types of Epidemiology. This is because epidemiology covers a wide range of health issues. These health issues may range from unintentional injuries to psychosocial stress.
The types or areas of epidemiology include:
#1. Infectious disease epidemiology for public health
#2. Chronic disease epidemiology
#3. Environmental epidemiology
#4. Violence and Injury Epidemiology
#1. Infectious Disease Epidemiology for Public Health
Infectious disease epidemiology for public health is at the front burner of global discussions in the field of public health today. This is because epidemiologists work on the front lines to track and trace the spread of current ravaging COVID-19. In this concentration, infectious disease epidemiologists work to detect pathogens or viruses, understand their development and spread, and devise effective interventions for their prevention and control.
#2. Chronic Disease Epidemiology
Chronic disease epidemiologists are involved with the day-to-day struggle to identify chronic conditions such as cancers, diabetes, obesity, and more. Epidemiologists in this field engage in the research of the origins, treatment, and health outcomes of these diseases in the fight towards prevention.
#3. Environmental Epidemiology
Environmental epidemiology focuses on the various ways an individual’s external factors affect health outcomes. This includes physical factors like pollution or housing, as well as social factors like stress and nutrition. Environmental epidemiologists strives to understand how different environments may result in physical or neurological outcomes, ranging from psychiatric to cardiovascular disorders.
#4. Violence and Injury Epidemiology
Violence and Injury Epidemiology focuses on how to address unintentional and intentional injuries across a lifespan. For example, epidemiologists in this field might focus their research on car accidents and work to identify the associated risk factors. Armed with extensive research, the goal of violence and injury epidemiology is to improve a population’s health by reducing the morbidity and mortality rate from unintentional and intentional injuries.
How epidemiologists track diseases
Epidemiology centers around the idea that disease and illness do not exist randomly or in a bubble. Epidemiologists conduct research to establish the factors that lead to public health issues, the appropriate responses, interventions, and solutions.
By using research—from the field and in the lab—and statistical analysis, epidemiologists can track disease and predict its future outcomes. In the case of COVID-19, this analysis requires heavy data surveillance, collection, and interpretation.
Due to the scale and threat of the coronavirus pandemic, testing centers, and healthcare systems are required to report all related data, providing epidemiologists with a wealth of information upon which to base their studies. The data which the epidemiologist tracks with this information includes:
- Number of Incidences (how many cases over time
- Disease Prevalence (how many cases at a specific time
- Number of Hospitalizations
- Number of Cases Resulting in Death
- Epidemiological Modeling
Using this data and more, epidemiologists create models that help predict the spread of the disease in the future—including where and when the spread may occur. They may also be able to discern the most vulnerable populations likely to contract a disease and provide recommendations for intervention.
In an attempt to stop the spread of disease and understand where it might spread to next, many public health workers use contact tracing to determine the connections or contacts of an infected person.
Types of epidemiological studies
Epidemiological studies generally fall into four broad categories:
#1. cross-sectional studies
#2. case-control studies
#3. cohort studies
#4. intervention studies
Degrees in epidemiology
With Columbia Public Health programs ranging from MPH, MS, DrPH, and PhD, students at all levels can gain the necessary knowledge to drive public health initiatives and conduct independent epidemiological research. Graduates go on to work in roles at companies and organizations ranging in size, scope, and mission, such as:
- Data and Informatics Analysts at medical technology firms, hospitals, and universities
- Research Scientists at statewide health departments
- Fellows at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Clinical Trial Associates at international research laboratories
- Research and Evaluation Manager at nonprofit organizations
Other areas of employment among our graduates include:
- Consulting firms
- Health insurance companies
- Marketing and strategic communications firms
- Pharmaceutical and biotechnology or medical device companies