What is Epidemiology?

Want to be a detective? Enjoy science? Then join up and become an epidemiologist! Figuring out how and when diseases began is what epidemiology is all about; the perfect job for people who want to combine a career as a detective and a career in science.

Epidemiology is an essential part of public health, helping doctors, politicians, and other public services figure out how to deal with a particular health condition or emergency. The detection game can be focused on a small, localised outbreak to a worldwide pandemic; it was epidemiology that traced the Covid-19 pandemic back to a food market in China.

Epidemiology is focused not only on diseases moving around a particular group of people, but also with what caused the disease in the first place. These “disease detectives” will examine disability, mortality (death), recovery, and the use of health services.

Epidemiology looks at both large populations and smaller communities; somewhere like the UK might be broken down into the four nations or specific districts. But epidemiology isn’t just interested in geography, but also with specific things; people in particular jobs, for instance, or nursing home residents. It studies any group where there is a risk of infection, or where infection is present.

One of the earliest examples of modern epidemiology was in the mid-nineteenth century, when cholera was spreading throughout the Soho in central London. Dr John Snow worked out where each case of cholera was in Soho on a map, and immediately noticed a pattern; they were concentrated around Broad Street, where there was a water pump. At that time, various companies delivered water locally; those people who had drunk water supplied by one particular company were more likely to get cholera. Because of his studies, he could prevent the disease from spreading any further by working with the local government and the water company.

But more than just being reactive – dealing with an outbreak as it happens – epidemiologists also focus on prevention. They check statistics to find trends and issues; this helps them understand how and where clusters of disease are happening – and where particular groups of people are at higher risk of something (hazardous drinking, for example), they can look at the high-risk age groups to see what is happening.

Epidemiology is an absolutely essential part of public health, and 2020 has proven that almost every day; making shifting decisions of lockdowns based on local and national data has been vital, and we’ve seen how public health specialists have been key in keeping us informed.

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