Epidemiology is the study of the various factors that influence the occurrence, distribution, prevention, and control of disease, injury, and other health-related events in a defined human population. By the application of various analytical techniques including mathematical analysis of the data, the probable cause of an infectious out- break can be pinpointed. This connection between epidemiology and infection makes microorganisms an important facet of epidemiology, and gives epidemiologists a vital link in emergency planning for public health response to a biological attack.
Molecular epidemiology has been used to trace the cause of bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases. This knowledge is valuable in developing a strategy to prevent further outbreaks of the microbial illness, since the probable source of a disease can be identified.
Furthermore, in the era of biological weapons use by individuals, organizations, and governments, epidemiological studies of the effect of exposure to infectious microbes has become more urgently important. Knowledge of the effect of a bioweapon on the battlefield may not extend to the civilian population that might also be secondarily affected by the weapons. Thus, epidemiology is an important tool in identifying and tracing the course of an infection.
Genetic epidemiology studies could result in data that would enable forensic investigators to rapidly identify bioterrorism or biological warfare agents specifically engineered or vectored to affect certain subgroups within a larger population.
Molecular epidemiology arises from varied scientific disciplines, including genetics, epidemiology and statistics. The strategies involved in genetic epidemiology en- compass population studies and family studies. Sophisticated mathematical tools are now involved, and computer technology is playing a predominant role in the development of the discipline. Multidisciplinary collaboration is crucial to understanding the role of genetic and environmental factors in disease processes.
Much information can come from molecular epidemiology even if the exact genetic cause of the malady is not known. For example, the identification of a malady in generations of related people can trace the genetic characteristic, and even help identify the original source of the trait. This approach is commonly referred to as genetic screening. The knowledge of why a particular malady appears in certain people, or why such people are more prone to a microbial infection than other members of the population, can reveal much about the nature of the dis- ease in the absence of the actual gene whose defect causes the disease.
Differences in response to pathogens is often a complex interplay of various environmental and genetic factors that require sophisticated analytical tools and techniques to identify. Aided by advances in computer technology, scientists develop complex mathematical formulas for the analysis of epidemiological models, the description of the transmission of the disease, and genetic-environmental interactions. Sophisticated mathematical techniques are now used for assessing classification, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of many diseases.
Population studies provide data that greatly impact public health programs and emergency responses. By means of several statistical tools, genetic epidemiologic studies evaluate risk factors, inheritance and possible models of inheritance. Different kinds of studies are based upon the number of people who participate and the method of sample collection (i.e., at the time of an outbreak or after an outbreak has occurred). A challenge for the investigator is to achieve a result able to be applied with as low a bias as possible to the general population. In other words, the goal of an epidemiological study of an infectious outbreak is to make the results from a few individuals applicable to the whole population.
A fundamental underpinning of infectious epidemiology is the confirmation that a disease outbreak has occurred. Once this is done, the disease is followed with time. The pattern of appearance of cases of the disease can be tracked by developing what is known as an epidemic curve. This information is vital in distinguishing a natural outbreak from a deliberate and hostile act, for example. In a natural outbreak the number of cases increases over time to a peak, after which the cases subside as immunity develops in the population. A deliberate release of organisms will be evident as a sudden appearance of a large number of cases at the same time.
Many illnesses of epidemiological concern are caused by microorganisms. Examples include hemorrhagic fevers such as that caused by the Ebola virus. The determination of the nature of illness outbreaks due to these and other microorganisms involve microbiological and immunological techniques.
Various routes can spread infections (i.e., contact, air borne, insect borne, food and water intake, etc.). Likewise, the route of entry of an infectious microbe can also vary from microbe to microbe.
If an outbreak is recognized early enough, samples of the suspected cause as well as samples from the afflicted (i.e., sputum, feces) can be gathered for analysis. The analysis will depend on the symptoms. For example, in the case of a food poisoning, symptoms such as the rapid development of cramping, nausea with vomiting, and diarrhea after eating a hamburger would be grounds to consider Escherichia coli O157:H7 as the culprit. Analyses would likely include the examination for other known microbes associated with food poisoning (i.e., Salmonella) in order to save time in identifying the organism.
Analysis can involve the use of conventional laboratory techniques (e.g., use of nonselective and selective growth media to detect bacteria). As well, more recent technological innovations can be employed. An example is the use of antibodies to a known microorganism that are complexed with a fluorescent particle. The binding of the antibody to the microbes can be detected by the examination of a sample using fluorescence microscopy or flow cytometry. Molecular techniques such as the polymerase chain reaction are employed to detect genetic material from a target organism. However, the expense of the techniques such as PCR tends to limit its use to more of a confirmatory role, rather than as an initial tool of an investigation. A considerable research effort is ongoing at U.S. National Laboratories to develop quicker, less expensive, and more portable PCR equipment that can be used by inspectors and investigators.
Another epidemiological tool is the determination of the antibiotic susceptibility and resistance of bacteria. Such laboratory techniques can be combined with other techniques to provide information related to the spread of an outbreak. For example, microbiological data can be combined with geographic information systems (GIS). GIS information has helped pinpoint the source of outbreaks. In addition to geographic based information, epidemiologists will use information including the weather on the days preceding an outbreak, mass transit travel schedules and schedules of mass-participation events that occurred around the time of an outbreak to try and establish a pattern of movement or behavior to those who have been affected by the outbreak. Use of credit cards and bank debit cards can also help piece together the movements of those who subsequently became infected.
Reconstructing the movements of people is especially important when the outbreak is an infectious disease. The occurrence of the disease over time can yield information as to the source of an outbreak. For example, the appearance of a few cases at first with the number of cases increasing over time to a peak is indicative of a natural outbreak. The number of cases usually begins to subside as the population develops immunity to the infection (e.g., influenza). However, if a large number of cases occur in the same area at the same time, the source of the infection might not be natural. Examples include a food poisoning or a bioterrorist action.
Epidemiologists were among the first scientists to effectively utilize the Internet and email capabilities to effectively communicate regarding disease outbreaks. The International Society for Infectious Diseases sponsors PROMED, the global email based electronic reporting system for outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases and toxins, is open to all sources.
(Excerpt from: Antonio Farina & Brian d. Hoyle “Principles of Epidemiology”)