Early Detection of Disease Outbreaks

Journal of Environmental Health, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Early Detection of Disease Outbreaks


For disease outbreak detection, the public health community has historically relied on the watchful eyes of doctors and other health care workers. The increased availability of electronic health care data, however, raises the possibility of more automated and earlier outbreak detection and subsequent intervention. Besides diagnoses of known diseases, prediagnostic syndromic indicators--such as the primary complaints of patients coming to the emergency room or calling a nurse hotline--are being collected in electronic formats and could be analyzed if suitable methods existed. Martin Kulldorff and co-authors have been developing such methods, and in the March 2005 issue of PloS Medicine, they report a new, very flexible approach for prospective infectious-disease outbreak surveillance.

Their method, which they call the "space-time permutation scan statistic," is an extension of a method called scan statistic. All previously developed scan statistics require either 1) a uniform population at risk (with the same number of expected disease cases in every square kilometer), 2) a control group (such as emergency visits not due to the disease of interest), or 3) other data that provide information about the geographical and temporal distribution of the underlying population at risk, such as census numbers. The new method, because of a different probability model, can be used for the early detection of disease outbreaks when only the number of cases is available. …

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