An outbreak investigation is the process of getting to the root of an epidemic and cutting it off at an early stage when possible. It is a crucial practice in public health and can be attributed to saving thousands of lives throughout the lifespan of a single outbreak. These investigations are all key to preventing similar cases in the future, which is an endeavor we can all soundly get behind. If nothing else, an epidemiologic investigation gives a us new knowledge about how outbreaks occur in the first place and can promote a sense of cooperation between the clinical and public health communities, collaborating to work towards a more health-conscious future.
These types of investigations are not uncommon, though the results tend to vary depending on the type of disease being examined. After the results are recorded, they are often published and become public knowledge. However, for one reason or another, there is precious little to be researched regarding the actual procedures involved in these types of investigations. You may be surprised to learn that these investigations are carried out rather on-the-fly. Most of the professionals tasked with the investigation are not versed on the procedures involved, rather they have more experienced colleagues with them to help assist in the investigation.
In order to understand why outbreaks are investigated at all, we must first understand how the outbreaks are initially recognized. More often than not, outbreaks are detected by health workers that simply do their jobs extraordinarily well. During an outbreak, a clinician will typically take notice of an unusual number of cases of a particular disease and make it known to public health officials. The case is usually brought to them by a patient, or a relative of the patient that suspects a larger problem. Usually this is the result of a shared meal experience that fosters a level of suspicion. Many cases start like this, you can refer to the discovery of Lyme disease as a prime example. Keeping an accurate record of data is key to learning the patterns of the disease. In doing so, researchers can find a commonality between reported cases and derive a responsible conclusion about the disease–common or otherwise.
But what are the primary reasons for investigating outbreaks? Who benefits? The most obvious reason that comes to mind is the fact that by detecting and recognizing the original source of the disease, we can cut off the exposure to the disease and control the outbreak. Especially for foodborne illnesses. Due to improved traceability within the food industry and the tightening of the belt from organizations like the FDA, we are able to conduct thorough investigations and get to the root of a foodborne illness faster and more efficiently. iNECTA is proud to serve responsible growers, catchers and manufacturers that provide ample traceability in the unlikely event of an outbreak. It’s not just about business, it’s about the lives of the consumers. After an investigation is carried out and the cause is detected, a recall can be ordered before the outbreak grows any larger. Beyond that, outbreak investigations are crucial to devising methods and strategies to be put into practice during future outbreaks.
In addition, conducting outbreak investigations leads us to conclusions that are essential to progressing our understanding of public health issues. Some of these reasons include describe newly discovered diseases, teach epidemiology, deal with public concern during an outbreak, evaluate existing prevention methods and strategies such as vaccines and other medications.