Disa Cornish, associate professor of public health and education at University of Northern Iowa, shares her perspective on epidemiology in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What exactly is epidemiology?
Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of health and health-related events/behaviors in different populations. In epidemiology, we study the who, what, when, where and why of health to prevent disease and promote health for all.
How does epidemiology help us understand the origins of COVID-19?
Epidemiology has several uses that are really important to understanding diseases and how they impact different communities. It helps us assess community health by finding out whether certain populations are at higher risk and whether health services are prepared to deal with health issues. It helps us identify risk factors that we can use to help individuals make good decisions about behavior (like hand washing or social distancing). And, it can help us understand the natural history of diseases and contribute to medical research about different conditions. Epidemiologists do this by going out into communities, talking to people, documenting what is observed and testing ideas about why things are happening.
How does epidemiology help us understand our options going forward after COVID-19?
Epidemiologists are working hard to get a better understanding of how public health measures like closing schools or practicing social distancing can help us "flatten the curve" and reduce the severity of an outbreak. Epidemiologists also look into history to get a better understanding of how things might work in the present and/or future.
What are lessons from past history, as an epidemiologist, that influence your perspective this time?
I'm thinking a lot about history right now, and that historical perspective is really important. The 1918 influenza pandemic was disastrous worldwide, but we learned a lot about what measures would successfully prevent really severe outbreaks. More recently, the SARS (also a coronavirus) outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009 can provide important lessons. I encourage people to research those--there are some great books and articles online!
As someone who studies and teaches epidemiology, what advice can you give to your colleagues, family and friends in the midst of COVID-19?
Listen to public health! Listen to the science! The tremendous amount of excellent science happening right now is a great source of optimism for me. The CDC and public health officials are providing the best recommendations given the available science. We should listen to them and take their advice seriously to flatten the curve of this pandemic. If we all do our part (through social distancing measures) for a relatively short period of time, we can make a great impact. And, let's shop local as much as possible and continue to strengthen our communities.
What do you hope we learn from this pandemic?
First, I hope this will inspire people to get involved in public health! We have a great undergraduate public health program, as well as a vibrant master's program. We need more public health professionals in the world, and this is a great time to get involved. On a bigger scale, I also really hope we learn that public health and prevention needs to be well-funded at the local, state and national levels. The tricky thing is that when public health is working well, no one knows it's even there! It's a silent science that keeps us healthy every day (think about the clean water running from your tap, the good access to fresh fruits and veggies, the bike and walking trails). And when we forget something is there, we forget to fund it! I hope this will serve as a reminder that public health efforts deserve our attention.
Cornish recommends the following sources of information. She is currently reading "The Great Influenza" by John Barry, about the 1918 flu pandemic.