Public Health Surveillance During a Disaster

Aerial shot of a community recovering from structural damage after a natural 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 death, injury, and illness data, which enables public health to identify adverse health effects in the community. Disaster surveillance allows us to identify risk factors, track disease trends, determine action items, and target interventions. It allows us to assess the human health impacts of a disaster and evaluate potential problems related to planning and prevention. While each disaster is different, there are similarities among them and we can apply knowledge learned from each response to the next disaster. Disaster surveillance is often categorized broadly as mortality and morbidity surveillance.

Mortality Surveillance

Mortality surveillance measures death in a population. It is an important indicator of the gravity of a disaster. Identifying the leading cause(s) and circumstances of death can help guide immediate and future prevention strategies. Health studies has developed tools and guidelines to help partners with disaster mortality surveillance including the following:

NCEH, in coordination with the National Center for Health Statistics, has also developed an eLearning on the Guidance for Certification of Deaths in the Event of a Natural, Human-Induced, or Radiological/Chemical Disaster designed for Medical Examiners (MEs)/Coroners and physicians. See Materials and Resources for more information.

Morbidity Surveillance

Morbidity 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. NCEH works closely with American Red Cross, STLT jurisdictions, and other CDC centers to conduct disaster surveillance during a response. The following tools and guidelines are available to help partners with disaster morbidity surveillance:

NCEH has developed an eLearning on Disaster Surveillance to provide partners with an overview of disaster surveillance. See Materials and Resources for more information