Can Lessons from Public Health Disease Surveillance Be Applied to Environmental Public Health Tracking?

By Ritz, Beate; Tager, Ira et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Can Lessons from Public Health Disease Surveillance Be Applied to Environmental Public Health Tracking?


Ritz, Beate, Tager, Ira, Balmes, John, Environmental Health Perspectives


Disease surveillance has a century-long tradition in public health, and environmental data have been collected at a national level by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for several decades. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an initiative to develop a national environmental public health tracking (EPHT) network with "linkage" of existing environmental and chronic disease data as a central goal. On the basis of experience with long-established disease surveillance systems, in this article we suggest how a system capable of linking routinely collected disease and exposure data should be developed, but caution that formal linkage of data is not the only approach required for an effective EPHT program. The primary operational goal of EPHT has to be the "treatment" of the environment to prevent and/or reduce exposures and minimize population risk for developing chronic diseases. Chronic, multifactorial diseases do not lend themselves to data-driven evaluations of intervention strategies, time trends, exposure patterns, or identification of at-risk populations based only on routinely collected surveillance data. Thus, EPHT should be synonymous with a dynamic process requiring regular system updates to a) incorporate new technologies to improve population-level exposure and disease assessment, b) allow public dissemination of new data that become available, c) allow the policy community to address new and emerging exposures and disease "threads," and d) evaluate the effectiveness of EPHT over some appropriate time interval. It will be necessary to weigh the benefits of surveillance against its costs, but the major challenge will be to maintain support for this important new system. Key words: environmental health, evaluation, intervention, registries, surveillance. doi:10.1289/ehp.7450 available via http://dx.doi.org/[Online 2 December 2004]

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes its own mission as serving "as the national focus for developing and applying disease prevention and control, environmental health, and health promotion and education activities designed to improve the health of the people of the United States" (CDC 2005). Recently, the CDC, for the first time, funded state and larger metropolitan health departments and three academic centers to begin to develop a national environmental public health tracking (EPHT) network. The CDC vision for the EPHT program is to improve protection of communities from adverse health effects through the integration of public health and environmental information systems. To implement this vision, the goal is to develop a national tracking (i.e., surveillance) network that links chronic disease and environmental data sources.

Surveillance has a long tradition in public health for both the descriptive epidemiology of diseases and the provision of insights into disease causation and disease control. It can be taken as axiomatic that, ultimately, all surveillance systems aim at disease control. Generally, surveillance refers to the continuous, routine collection of data related to health or exposures of populations over the long term, and the associated analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of the results. Surveillance data collected by government agencies such as the CDC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provide important archives that permit continued reinterpretation and health research. To date, however, the data systems established and used for surveillance focus either on diseases/syndromes or on media (e.g., ambient air pollutants, toxic agents) without formal linkage between systems. In this article, we focus our analyses mainly on properties and lessons learned from disease surveillance systems. We also provide arguments that effective surveillance does not always require formal linkage of exposure and health outcome data; indeed, there are problems inherent in surveillance of environmentally related diseases when based on formal linkage of routinely collected data.

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Can Lessons from Public Health Disease Surveillance Be Applied to Environmental Public Health Tracking?
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