The role of epidemiologists in global health

July 22, 2015

Epidemiologists are on the front lines of global health—and on the front pages of the newspaper—particularly in the wake of major disease outbreaks like Ebola in 2014 and natural disasters like the Nepal earthquakes of 2015.

Here are 4 current global health concerns in which epidemiologists are playing a critical role.

1. Natural disasters

As of May 2015, 8,583 people have been declared dead and another 17,866 injured in the Nepal earthquakes. This devastation gives rise to significant public health concerns, including the potential spread of infectious diseases such as typhoid and cholera.

During natural disasters, epidemiologists collect and analyze data in order to understand and relay the risk factors and other effects on public health. In these cases, an epidemiologist’s role is to provide evidence-based tools and recommendations for future disaster responses as well as inform public policy of changes or implementations necessary to combat risk in the future. In addition, specialists in disaster epidemiology are sought out to provide advice and predictions about the short-and long-term adverse health effects disasters like these can create.

2. Infectious disease

Since 1980, between 1 and 3 new infectious diseases have been identified each year and other diseases have re-emerged, often as a result of natural disasters. These outbreaks have a negative impact on everything from health to trade and travel to a country’s economy. The right resources, funding, and professional support can help combat and even eradicate certain global health epidemics.

For example, epidemiologists may specialize in travel epidemiology, focused on the health risks associated with transportation. Travel regulations, recommendations of optimal travel policies during infectious disease outbreaks, and updates on infectious risks while traveling are all areas explored in this concentration. In another specialty, enteric epidemiology, scientists seek to understand infectious diseases that enter the mouth or intestine tract and how to prevent the rapid spread of these diseases.

3. Cancer

In 2012, there were 14.1 million new cancer cases and 8.2 million deaths related to cancer. The World Health Organization has projected that in just 20 years these numbers could increase to 24 million new cases and 14.6 million deaths from cancer. This increase creates a need for additional research and funding leading to increased roles in epidemiology.

Specifically, epidemiologists play a part in cancer prevention by researching risk factors and reducing these risks through community education, government programs, or health policies. Epidemiologists also study cancer-causing factors and influences such as UV rays, tobacco, and other chemical exposure.

4. Obesity

Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980, with over 1.9 billion overweight adults and 600 million obese adults. Most of the world’s population lives in countries where being overweight or obese kills more than being underweight. Individuals who suffer from obesity experience health complications along with negative impacts on quality of life, which may include depression, disability, and lower work achievements. Many developing countries also face what the World Health Organization calls “double burden.” In this case, these countries are dealing with infectious diseases and under-nutrition, while at the same time dealing with obesity due to lower physical activity and low nutrition quality in foods they do receive.

Epidemiologists concerned with obesity look for risk factors related to excess weight gain—including psychological, environmental, social, or behavioral factors. They may also make recommendations on how to prevent obesity in various areas of the world, providing suggestions for nutrition programs, physical activity, or education programs to promote healthy lifestyles.

Epidemiology is a cornerstone for improving global health. As infectious diseases, natural disasters, obesity rates, and cancer diagnoses persist, so will the role of epidemiologists expand.

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