The highlights of an epidemiologist’s job are to study ways to help prevent public health problems or work in communities by collecting and analyzing data about a disease that is afflicting the local area. Lastly, they relay information back to the public about their findings (Solve the Outbreak, CDC). These abilities are very useful when an epidemiologist is called in to help solve disease and non-disease related health issues within a community. These health issues include but are not limited to epidemics, pandemics, and outbreaks. An epidemic is when the expected number of disease cases, injuries, or other poor health problems rapidly rises throughout a population or region. Like epidemics, an outbreak is when the number of disease/illness cases are greater than what was expected. Outbreaks can be isolated or spread across a vast swath of land (The Epidemiological Process). Pandemics are considered to be larger epidemics. They afflict large populations and are present across several countries (Solve the Outbreak, CDC). Epidemiologists employ a vast amount of different skills when they are needed to help solve an outbreak.
To show how complex solving an outbreak can really be, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a game that lets people step into the shoes of an epidemiologist. The game, simply titled, “Solve the Outbreak” has two levels and twenty missions between the two. Every mission is unique and requires you to analyze data provided and then decide what the correct course of action is to continue on with the mission. There are five parts to each mission, each part addresses a different aspect of what needs to happen to successfully diagnose the illness. This includes finding out what is causing the disease, illness, or problem within the community, how it’s spreading, the impact it’s having on the afflicted population, and what can be done to solve the problem and prevent further exposures (Solve the Outbreak, CDC). The game gives you three choices of action for each section of the mission. The game teaches you useful information about detecting all types of infectious diseases.
The game gives you data that you have to read and carefully analyze to help you choose the right step in solving the mission. For example, the first mission titled “Breathless in the Midwest”, shows you a graph of the attack rate for different activities that are suspected to be the cause of the outbreak. The attack rate is defined as the number of sick people divided by the number of people who took part in a certain action. It compares the participation in different activities with people who are sick and people who aren’t. Epidemiologists want to look for an activity with a high percentage of sick people and a low percentage of healthy individuals (Solve the Outbreak, CDC). The game also shows you how to read epidemic curves. Epi-curves are graphs that depict the incidence of a disease over a certain amount of time. It graphs the growth of the epidemic or outbreak (Solve the Outbreak, CDC). Being able to read and understand the data that is provided helps makes picking a course of action easier.
One of the requirements that must be met when solving an outbreak is conveying information about the problem to the public (The Epidemiological Process). The game acknowledges this crucial step as well. In the mission “Case of the Conference Blues” there is a suspected E. coli outbreak at a hotel conference. After it is confirmed to be E. coli, the game presents the player with three options. They are to test the leftover spinach, recommend a recall, and release a statement to the public that spinach is contaminated (Solve the Outbreak, CDC). The correct answer is to test the leftover spinach, the other two are wrong because they are considered to be rushed actions. The game explains that choosing the other options are premature due not knowing the exactly if it’s the spinach or cross contamination, and because it could cause problems among the public if false information was released (Solve the Outbreak, CDC). Knowing when and when not to present the public with information is key in keeping peace in the community.
So how do you solve an outbreak? In the sense of the game and an actual outbreak, the required knowledge and skills overlap. To solve an outbreak, one must be able to carefully and critically analyze data that is collected about the afflicted population. Additionally, an epidemiologist must be able to understand the problem at hand and make the correct decision based on the evidence to keep the public safe from the disease/illness. Lastly, after all the data is collected and deciphered and the right course of action is chosen, one must be able to transparently relay information to the public about how they can beat the disease and how to prevent it from appearing again.