With epidemics and outbreaks threatening many developing countries, there is a need for more epidemiologists and public health workers to collect data and respond to the situation.  International law now requires countries to report certain outbreaks or public-health events and to improve their disease surveillance and response capabilities, but a shortage of trained epidemiologists limits their ability to comply.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are helping to fund 35 programs mainly in developing countries to train health workers in epidemiology to better prepare them to identify epidemics.  Eleven more programs are in the works. According to the Wall Street Journal, the initiative is modeled after the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service program, which helped to detect HIV/AIDS, eradicate smallpox, and discover a deadly strain of E. coli. 

By battling outbreaks such as the current cholera epidemic in Nigeria, the expansion of these programs can save many lives. Trained officers can track down cases, help treat patients and educate others.  CDC director Thomas Frieden said in an interview that if epidemiologists had been able to detect H1N1 in Mexico two months earlier, a vaccine would have been ready before the biggest peak hit the U.S. last year, and could have saved thousands of lives.  He believes that to be able to sufficiently measure disease threats, there needs to be at least one epidemiologist per 200,000 people. Using this rule of thumb, worldwide demand for epidemiologists would be 34,500 based on the 6.9 billion humans that inhabit the planet today. By some estimates there are no more than 5,000 worldwide today. Over the past 30 years, for example, only 2,200 people have graduated from CDC epidemiology programs. 

Despite this shortage of expertise, epidemiologists soldier on. Some of the outbreaks or public health problems currently being tracked by CDC-funded programs include:

  • Nigeria: Cholera epidemic that has led to more than 1,000 deaths
  • Ethiopia: Acute-diarrhea that sickened 10,000 in Addis Ababa
  • Kyrgyzstan: HIV among children in Bishkek
  • Ghana: Rabies
  • Egypt: H5N1 and H1N1 flu
  • Pakistan: Viral hepatitis
  • Thailand: Pneumonia in mushroom-farm workers caused by fungi
  • China: Melamine-contaminated infant formula

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The CDC is expanding its training programs to include Vietnam, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Iraq and Afghanistan.  The CDC is also working on creating shorter courses to train local officials in basic data collection.  The competent collection of timely data leads to improved disease surveillance and response strategies from which the whole world benefits. 

Photo by Eneas.

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About The Author

Christie Erdman, a guest contributor to the Healthy Travel blog, is a recent graduate of the University of Richmond with a degree in Economics and Marketing. She enjoys traveling, and had the opportunity to spend a semester studying at Universita Bocconi in Milan, Italy during her junior year.

2 Comments

  1. Christie,
    Very nice article. Do you have a link for the estimate for 5,000 epidemiologists worldwide? I am looking for best estimates. Thanks, Chris

    • Thank you, Chris.
      The number of epidemiologists worldwide is based on the current membership of the ISEE (The International Society for Environmental Epidemiology), which is approx 1,000 members, the CDC statistic that 2,200 people have graduated from their epidemiology programs in the past 30 years, and our estimates of how many specialists are outside of the ISEE organization or who graduated more than 30 years ago.
      I hope that helps!

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