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Public Health Surveillance during a Disaster

During a disaster, it is important to conduct surveillance to determine the extent and scope of the health effects on the affected populations. Surveillance is the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of deaths, injuries, and illnesses which enables public health to track and identify any adverse health effects in the community. It allows us to assess the human health impacts of a disaster and evaluate potential problems related to planning and prevention.

Public health surveillance during a disaster allows for the detection of potential disease outbreaks and track disease and injury trends. A common myth is that epidemics are inevitable during a disaster. However, epidemics do not spontaneously occur and public health surveillance can mitigate the likelihood for outbreaks through early detection and response. Additionally, conducting health surveillance allows for the ability to make informed decisions about action items such as allocating resources, targeting interventions to meet specific needs, and planning future disaster response. While each disaster is different, there are similarities among them and we can apply knowledge learned from each response to the next disaster. The Disaster Surveillance Workgroup (DSWG) brings together experts from across CDC to set standards for data collection, sharing, and reporting during a public health disaster. Through the work of the DSWG, HSB has developed morbidity and mortality surveillance tools and training materials.

Mortality Surveillance

Death Scene Investigation Toolkit

CDC’s Death Scene Investigation after Natural Disasters or other Weather -Related Events [PDF – 1 MB] features checklists, forms, and other resources for death scene investigators to use when collecting data at death scenes during and after a natural disaster or weather-related event.

To use refillable forms specific to certain disasters, see these links:

A literature review to examine how death scene data are collected and how such data are used to determine disaster relatedness informed the new toolkit. More information about the literature review can be found in the article, Medicolegal Death Scene Investigations After Natural Disaster- and Weather-Related Events: A Review of the Literature  [PDF – 1.9MB].

Reference Guide for Death Certification

Disaster-related mortality data collected from death certificates are used to assess the scope of a disaster, identify common risk factors for these deaths, and develop evidence-based public health interventions. The key to more accurate reporting of disaster-related deaths is to promote a common framework and decision-making process for determining disaster relatedness. CDC’s  A Reference Guide for Certification of Deaths in the Event of a Natural, Human-induced, or Chemical/Radiological Disaster  provides examples and recommendations for recording the name and type of disaster on the death certificate to ensure  that disaster relatedness is reflected appropriately on the death certificate.

Disaster-Related Mortality Surveillance Form

The Disaster-Related Mortality Surveillance Form was developed by HSB in collaboration with representatives from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. The purpose of the form is to identify the number of deaths related to a disaster and provide important information about the circumstances of death. Learn more and download form and instructions.

Morbidity Surveillance Workgroup

The CDC Disaster Surveillance Workgroup (DSWG) has created four, ready-to-use, standardized morbidity surveillance forms to be used to conduct active surveillance during a disaster. These forms are templates and can be modified to meet the needs of the specific incident. Learn more and download forms and instructions.

Examples of CDC Health Studies Branch Disaster Surveillance Activities

  • Earthquake, Haiti – 2010
  • Tsunami/Earthquake, American Samoa – 2009
  • Ice Storms, Kentucky – 2009
  • Hurricane Ike, Texas – 2008
  • Floods, Iowa – 2008

Review HSB Disaster Response Activities

Requesting CDC Health Studies Branch Assistance

The CDC Health Studies Branch (HSB) provides scientific consultation, technical assistance, and disaster epidemiology training to

  • local, state, or foreign health departments,
  • federal agencies,
  • non-governmental organizations,
  • professional interest groups,
  • international organizations,
  • academic institutions, and
  • foreign governments.

To learn more about requesting HSB assistance, please visit HSB’s Disaster Training and Response webpage.

CDC Related Resources

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