In the 1980s, scientists and clinicians were grappling with one of deadliest outbreaks in modern history. Large numbers of patients were dying from uncommon types of pneumonia, cancer, and infections of the lymph nodes. It seemed that some sort of immune system disorder was sweeping through the population. This was the official beginning of the AIDS pandemic, an outbreak that would go on to kill an estimated 39 million people worldwide.
The surge in AIDS cases in the early 1980s caused a great deal of fear and confusion in affected areas. People didn’t understand where the disease had come from or how it was transmitted, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS amongst the gay community and intravenous drug users led to the stigmatisation of HIV-positive individuals.
Epidemiologists were absolutely central to combatting misinformation during this period. Their work helped to lift the veil on HIV, allowing scientists, clinicians, and officials to help manage the condition. Literally translated from the Greek meaning ‘the study of people’, epidemiology is the practice of tracking the patterns, causes, and impact of diseases within populations.
The bigger picture
Epidemiologists are the detectives of science, and their work draws on many different areas, including medicine, public health, social sciences, statistics, and policy.
When an outbreak occurs, biologists look to study the pathogen and its structure and processes in intense detail. Epidemiologists operate on the opposite end of the scale, looking at the impact of disease at the population level. Who is affected? What behaviour leads to transmission? What are the impacts of medical interventions? These are questions that epidemiologists help to answer, sometimes going beyond molecular cause and effect and exploring social issues like poverty and cultural practices to help get a bigger picture of healthcare issues.
Epidemiologists and biologists may look at disease from different angles, but you need both sides – the fundamental biological knowledge and the population impact – to really understand a problem.
We see the effects of epidemiology everywhere, from the decline in smoking rates, to the increased use of sunscreen. The findings of epidemiologists inform government policy, treatment plans, and public health campaigns; and their work helps to optimise the response to healthcare issues and disease outbreaks around the world. Epidemiologists were integral to recent efforts to wipe out Ebola in West Africa; they’re also at work investigating the effect of attempts to combat malaria.
But epidemiology doesn’t just cover tracking, prevention, and control; it also assists with prediction. Pathogens can evolve and emerge really quickly, and when a new strain of dangerous virus or bacteria is found, it’s important to get a picture of its impact, virulence, and existing status amongst the population as quickly as possible. The data gathered by epidemiologists helps to answer these questions and informs our understanding of the threat presented.
Piecing together the puzzle
Back in the 1980s, the work of epidemiologists helped to restore understanding and clarity around HIV. They tracked the spread of the disease, building up a picture of the relationships and commonalities between sufferers. Their work stemmed the tide of infection by informing people of how to prevent transmission. Government policies were developed to introduce healthcare campaigns and treatment services for those affected.
The dawn of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s was a dark time for many communities, but epidemiologists helped to expel some of the dread and anxiety surrounding the virus and improve the lives of those affected.
Science doesn’t begin and end with the laboratory. Around the world, epidemiologists are building up the bigger picture of how healthcare issues play out within the population, helping us to solve the puzzles presented by disease, one piece at a time.
A version of this article was originally published in Inside Diamond Magazine