Studies & Degrees in Epidemiology and Public Health Unit
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Epidemiology and Public Health are two different fields of studies but are very much inter-related. The relationship of these two fields of science can be compared to the proverbial half-filled-glass-half-empty-glass-of-water point of view. Generally, they share the same purpose, which is to prevent the outbreak of communicable diseases but the functions of an epidemiologist and a public health worker are totally opposite to what the other does. However, as opposite are their approach to each other, epidemiology and public health should work side by side in order to safeguard the general health of the population. When diseases like the ones caused by the SARS and H1N1 viruses kills a number of people in so short a time, leading epidemiologists and public health authorities are called in to contain these viruses.
Epidemiology largely deals with the understanding of how often and why diseases occur in different groups of different people. Generally, Epidemiology is not offered as an undergraduate course by most universities but rather as postgraduate courses. Usually, epidemiologist have different backgrounds, among them are usually microbiologists and veterinarians. Those specializing in Epidemiology should have extensive laboratory work experience and should be willing to do field work as sometimes there are now equipments portable enough to carry out analysis of pertinent data.
On the other hand, Public Health deals with prevention of outbreak of diseases and promotion of health of the populace. Since, public health is more concern with the overall well-being of the population, individual cases are not prioritized unless a particular disease has been contacted by a number of patients. Public health actually has a wide scope to cover. During times of outbreaks, they need to work side by side with epidemiologists since it is their responsibility to look after the health of the population. Another major task of the Public Health unit is to inform the public whatever piece of information regarding how to safeguard their health. Disseminating information sometimes calls for a massive campaign so that’s why public relations specialists are also key personnel of public health units. From virus or disease outbreak alerts to the simple proper way of washing one’s hands or anything the public that needs to know, it is important that the message or alert warnings reaches the public in time.
In third world countries, epidemiologists and public health units are much busier than their counterparts in developed nations. This is because incidences of outbreaks of diseases like cholera, malaria, dengue, high fever and among others occur more frequently. These occurrences are more frequent because developed nations have more efficient methods of educating the public about public health issues. Third world countries tend to have remote areas that are hard to reach and the illiteracy level are quite high making the health education programs of the government more often ineffective.
However, since most diseases are already known and containing them are easy as long as the disease or virus have been identified, it is really during outbreaks of unknown diseases that epidemiologists and public health units are most worried about. Some strains of viruses would take time to be identified and by the time the new strain of virus got identified, sometimes hundreds of lives have already been claimed.
Those who would like to embark on a career specifically in saving millions of lives from deadly viruses like SARS and H1N1, acquiring a medical science related undergraduate course would be the first order of battle and then specialize in an epidemiology and public health unit course later on.
Job positions for Epidemiology and Public Health Unit:
Epidemiology is defined as the study of factors concerning the health and illness of the populations, and serves as the groundwork and logic of the interventions made in relation to public health and preventive medicine. It is recognized as the cornerstone methodology of public health research and holds high regard in evidence-based medicine for the risk factor identification of diseases and optimal treatment approaches in the clinical practice. The work of an Epidemiologist in the study of communicable and non-communicable diseases such as conducting an investigation due to an outbreak is to design, collect data and analyze it including the developments in the statistical models to test the hypotheses and the documents of the results for submission to various peer-reviewed journals. Among the other scientific disciplines relied on by Epidemiologists are biology, geographic information science and the social sciences.
An Epidemiologist should hold a bachelor’s degree in any of the sciences and a Master’s or PhD degree in epidemiology. Graduate level studies should involve learning about chronic and infectious disease, psychology or the study of the human mind, physiology or the study of the functioning of living things, biochemistry or the chemistry of living organisms, genetics or the study of heredity, toxicology or the study of scientific poisons, biostatistics or the biological form and function as well as health service administrations. It is a prime requirement for every Epidemiologist to have satisfactory math skills especially in the area that concerns statistics and probability since the work is more inclined in the analysis and interpretation of data. An Epidemiologist is not only limited to the studies aforementioned instead, they can also specialize in particular areas depending on where their interest lies.
This area of study is one of the prime features in identifying and determining the various public health policies. Government agencies usually employ Epidemiologists to aid in the public health crises research and in the setting of the public health policy.
Epidemiologists are usually hired by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). An Epidemiologist can also opt to work at a privately-owned research facility, a college or university, or in private or public agencies as a consultant. In developing plans for managing terrorist attacks that may cause a big number of casualties, epidemiologists can work for government law enforcement agencies.
The duties and responsibilities of an Epidemiologist vary depending on the different causes of disease or illness and injuries. But in any given day, he or she can perform any of the following tasks:
- Take part in the everyday research of specific diseases
- Plan and design a study on any issue about public health
- Address public issues by talking to the community, write related concerns and solutions and advocate for the implementation of changes.
- Write a report that evaluates and summarizes a finished research assignment
- Join forces with other doctors and health care workers to direct specific health concerns.
- Develop and refine strategies of coping for the identified disease risks and concerns.
- Propose a public health policy that will target all kinds of individuals in the community.
The average annual salary received by epidemiologist is within $30,000 and $50,000 in the United States.
Remember the mad-cow disease, the avian flu that hit Asia sometime back and perhaps SARS? The common denominator of these diseases is that all of them originated from animals. The mad-cow disease obviously got its name because they exhibited first from cows, the avian flu from birds and SARS from civet cats, an animal endemic to China. And where and when there are animals involved, veterinary doctors or Veterinarians or Vets are sure to be involved.
From city living experience, we know Vets to be those guys treating our pets when they get sick. Kids usually call them the animal doctors. Even in children’s stories, veterinary doctors are represented by the famous Dr. Doolittle, who treats animals because he can talk to them.
Aside from treatment of sick pets, professionally, little is known about the practice of veterinary medicine. What a lot of people may not know is that the meats being sold in the markets or groceries have passed through a Vet’s inspection. Meaning Vets make sure that the food we eat as far as animal products are concerned are disease free. Notice that some parts of the meat have a blue coloration to it, that is because it is the ink of the vet’s stamp of certification that the meat is guaranteed fit for human consumption.
Large commercial farms dealing in livestock cannot do without a Vet. The Resident Vet would be the one to look after the health of each livestock. Each livestock is checked upon depending on the schedule of check-ups the company adheres to. Vets would be on the lookout for animals exhibiting symptoms of any kind. Once a symptom is observed, these animals are immediately put under quarantine for more testing and confirmation. Those commercial farms that have so many livestock invest in their Resident Vet and sponsor their Vet’s post-graduate courses such as Epidemiology. Since he will be exposed to thousands of animals on a day-to-day basis, the threat of outbreak within the farm needs to be contained immediately so as not to contaminate the whole herd. Not only that, the company will suffer tremendous amounts of money should the Vet fail to contain the outbreak. Mad cow disease and SARS are rare occurrences but in a livestock farm, it is also the Vet’s job to recommend practices that will ensure safety of the animals and those people working with the animals. There are viruses that may not affect the animal itself but when farm cleanliness policies are not strictly followed down the letter, the pathogens may be passed on to humans and a different effect might happen. Sometimes, a simple wearing of gloves or washing of hands may already kill millions of disease-causing viruses and bacteria so making sure that those practices recommended are diligently followed.
Practicing veterinarians can easily transition to become epidemiologists because they won’t have to learn so much on the topic of animals as common hosts of pathogenic agents. For those who want to be an epidemiologist, taking veterinary medicine would be a good stepping stone. A word of caution though for those who want to pursue epidemiology, since diseases is what will be the topic throughout most of the course make sure to eat lunch outside the classroom as the petri dishes inside the laboratory might have live germs on them.
As they say, an Epidemiologist’s job is the hardest job of all because they are always exposed to live specimens of microorganisms that cause diseases. Also, during times of outbreaks of unknown strains of viruses, they would be the one to go in quarantined areas or suspected contaminated areas to investigate and study the development of patients and possibly develop a method in checking the disease from spreading further.
The movie “Outbreak,” starred by Dustin Hoffman, exemplifies best what an Epidemiologist does. In the movie, an airborne virus, a virus that can be contacted in the air, was spread by a monkey to a human and then to other humans. The Epidemiologist called in to combat and check the spread of the disease, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, the first things he did was to contain the spread of the disease by ordering a state of quarantine on the areas with incidence of the disease. Then got the findings from the tests from afflicted patients to identify and understand how the virus is causing the disease. When it was identified that the cause of the disease was a type of an Ebola virus, which are naturally present in a specific species of monkey, Dustin Hoffman ordered a search for a particular monkey in order to produce an antidote and stop the outbreak altogether.
However, the things that happened in the movie cited above were what just what Epidemiologist would do in real life if and if there is really an outbreak of a virus or bacteria that is potent. Sometime back, the SARS virus scare forced airlines around the world to have arriving passengers from countries with SARS cases be thoroughly checked by Epidemiologists to make sure that no traces of the virus would be set free in their respective countries.
Since outbreaks and virus scares that may wipeout communities instantaneously seldom happen, normal or typical day for an Epidemiologist would be inside a laboratory with their petri dishes and live cultures of whatever microorganism. Apparently, there are diseases that are breaking out now and again, diseases like dengue, cholera, typhoid fever and malaria among other tropical diseases. Although, these diseases are very much treatable and easily contained, Epidemiologists are still constantly researching cases of these diseases as new strains might come out especially when exposed to a different group of people.
Probably, being an Epidemiologist would mean a government position employment because outbreaks of diseases are also a matter of national security. Any government should be concern with controlling and containing diseases because millions of lives are at stake when an outbreak or pathogen is left unchecked.
The primary function of an Epidemiologist really is to understand how and why a particular disease occurs. When the workings of a particular disease are understood, an Epidemiologist can give recommendations on how to control and get rid of the disease. However, since a different agency is in charge of disseminating information, which usually falls under the Public Health Unit/Department, an Epidemiologist must work in unison with the Public Health Unit so that his findings will not be for naught.