Disaster Epidemiology: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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Disaster Epidemiology

Why should we collect data during a disaster?

Collecting health and needs information during a disaster helps to provide situational awareness. We need to know what is happening to understand what the needs are, plan the response, and gather the appropriate resources. We want to prevent further morbidity and mortality by addressing both immediate and long-term needs, adjusting priorities, allocating resources, and projecting and planning for future needs. We also use data to identify risk factors and improve prevention and mitigation strategies for future disasters.

What is disaster epidemiology?

Disaster epidemiology is the use of epidemiology to assess the short- and long-term adverse health effects of disasters and to predict consequences of future disasters. Typically, the main objectives of disaster epidemiology are to

  • prevent or reduce the number of deaths, illnesses, and injuries caused by disasters,
  • provide timely and accurate health information for decision-makers, and
  • improve prevention and mitigation strategies for future disasters by gaining information for future response preparation.
What tools are available for state, tribal, local, and territorial (STLT) health department to use during disaster response?

STLT health departments should look first at the tools they are using in non-disaster settings to assess their applicability for adaption to a disaster response. However, CDC provides various tools for public health disaster response including template forms for morbidity surveillance, mortality surveillance, shelter assessments, and the Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response, CASPER toolkit pdf icon[PDF – 23.2 MB].

How do state and local health departments request CDC assistance?

CDC Health Studies (HS) provides scientific consultation, technical assistance, and disaster epidemiology training to state, tribal, local, territorial (STLT), federal, and international public health partners to help them respond to natural and man-made disasters. There are several ways you can request CDC assistance. If you would like more information on CDC HS consultation, technical assistance, or disaster epidemiology training, please click here.

Public Health Surveillance During a Disaster

What is public health surveillance?

Public health surveillance is the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of deaths, injuries, and illnesses in order to provide information about any adverse health effects related to a disaster event in a community. It allows us to assess the human health impacts of a disaster and evaluate potential problems related to planning and prevention.

Why conduct public health surveillance during disaster response?

Public health morbidity surveillance allows us to detect disease outbreaks and track disease trends. A common myth is that epidemics are inevitable during a disaster. Early detection and response, however, can lessen the likelihood for outbreaks. Additionally, conducting health surveillance allows public health leaders and decision makers to make informed decisions about action items such as allocating resources, targeting interventions to meet specific needs, and planning for future disasters. In addition to public health morbidity surveillance, mortality surveillance can provide information that can prevent excess death. The number of deaths is a strong indicator of the impact of the disaster. Disasters can overwhelm local medical examiners and emergency systems, disrupting typical reporting methods. Most mortality surveillance data (such as Vital Statistics) are collected in a way that is not timely or detailed enough to be useful for disaster response. Thus, implementing active mortality surveillance following a disaster provides a critical aspect to response.

What tools are available to assist in conducting surveillance during a disaster?

Health Studies has developed multiple ready-to-use templates for mortality and morbidity surveillance. These tools can supplement existing surveillance systems or replace surveillance systems that have been hindered or destroyed due to a disaster. For more information, review the Materials and Resources page

How do we create a surveillance system during a disaster?

During disasters, several steps may need to be conducted simultaneously when planning a surveillance system. Just as purpose and objective should be clear in any disaster response effort, the surveillance system should have well-defined objectives. Additionally, data sources need to be identified and selected. Facility-based surveillance of hospitals and emergency medical operations can provide information on those seeking care during a disaster, yet there is often the need to use additional nontraditional sources of information (such as a shelters, pharmacies, or physician offices) as well. Ideally, data collection instruments for surveillance should be developed, tested, and distributed before the disaster occurs (e.g., CDC-developed surveillance tools). However, these instruments will need to be modified for each disaster and location. The data collection instrument should collect only the most essential information and should have easy data entry. For information to be useful, it must be disseminated in a timely fashion through appropriate channels (e.g., public health and other government officials, relief workers, the affected community, and the media).

Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER)

Please see the CASPER FAQ page.

Page last reviewed: September 23, 2019