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16: Disease and Epidemiology

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    In the United States and other developed nations, public health is a key function of government. A healthy citizenry is more productive, content, and prosperous; high rates of death and disease, on the other hand, can severely hamper economic productivity and foster social and political instability. The burden of disease makes it difficult for citizens to work consistently, maintain employment, and accumulate wealth to better their lives and support a growing economy.

    In this chapter, we will explore the intersections between microbiology and epidemiology, the science that underlies public health. Epidemiology studies how disease originates and spreads throughout a population, with the goal of preventing outbreaks and containing them when they do occur. Over the past two centuries, discoveries in epidemiology have led to public health policies that have transformed life in developed nations, leading to the eradication (or near eradication) of many diseases that were once causes of great human suffering and premature death. However, the work of epidemiologists is far from finished. Numerous diseases continue to plague humanity, and new diseases are always emerging. Moreover, in the developing world, lack of infrastructure continues to pose many challenges to efforts to contain disease.

    Red bag with a biohazard sticker on it.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Signs like this may seem self-explanatory today, but a few short centuries ago, people lacked a basic understanding of how diseases spread. Microbiology has greatly contributed to the field of epidemiology, which focuses on containing the spread of disease. (credit: modification of work by Tony Webster)

    • 16.1: The Language of Epidemiologists
      The field of epidemiology concerns the geographical distribution and timing of infectious disease occurrences and how they are transmitted and maintained in nature, with the goal of recognizing and controlling outbreaks. The science of epidemiology includes etiology (the study of the causes of disease) and investigation of disease transmission (mechanisms by which a disease is spread).
    • 16.2: Tracking Infectious Diseases
      Some important researchers, such as Florence Nightingale, subscribed to the miasma hypothesis. The transition to acceptance of the germ theory during the 19th century provided a solid mechanistic grounding to the study of disease patterns. The studies of 19th century physicians and researchers such as John Snow, Florence Nightingale, Ignaz Semmelweis, Joseph Lister, Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, and others sowed the seeds of modern epidemiology.
    • 16.3: How Diseases Spread
      Pathogens often have elaborate adaptations to exploit host biology, behavior, and ecology to live in and move between hosts. Hosts have evolved defenses against pathogens, but because their rates of evolution are typically slower than their pathogens (because their generation times are longer), hosts are usually at an evolutionary disadvantage. This section will explore where pathogens survive—both inside and outside hosts—and some of the many ways they move from one host to another.
    • 16.4: Global Public Health
      A large number of international programs and agencies are involved in efforts to promote global public health. Among their goals are developing infrastructure in health care, public sanitation, and public health capacity; monitoring infectious disease occurrences around the world; coordinating communications between national public health agencies in various countries; and coordinating international responses to major health crises.
    • 16.E: Disease and Epidemiology (Exercises)

    Thumbnail: The biohazard symbol was developed by the Dow Chemical Company in 1966 for their containment products. It is used in the labeling of biological materials that carry a significant health risk. (Public Domain; Silsor).

    16: Disease and Epidemiology is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenStax via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.