Epidemiology is a fairly new discipline. Epidemiologists are health researchers who study the health of a population by gathering and analysing statistics to identify the cause of ill-health in the population and how it can be prevented. For example, it was epidemiological research that first proved that smoking was associated with an increased risk of cancer and many other diseases.

Epidemiologists look at medical, social, environmental and economic factors when determining the causes of problems. There are many different aspects that epidemiologists can study, for example:

  • environmental epidemiologists study the links between environmental exposure and disease, such as between radon gas and lung cancer
  • public health epidemiologists work on issues ranging from alcohol and drug abuse, to communicable diseases and mental health
  • infectious disease epidemiologists deal with the factors which cause disease in the population.

Epidemiologists spend most of their time researching statistics and ‘crunching’ numbers to conduct statistical analysis of their data. They must have an interest in and knowledge of a wide range of topics, as everything from environmental to social factors influences their work.

Epidemiologists carry out or oversee professional, epidemiological investigative work by assisting in the design, conducting and analysis of epidemiological investigations for disease surveillance and special studies. The purpose of their work is to identify causative agents or conditions that have an adverse effect on health, provide data and information concerning corrective actions or programmes to alleviate such adverse health effects, and also to propose practices or policies based on findings that will maintain and promote public health.

Other tasks - they supervise professional, technical and clerical personnel, prepare and analyse samples to study the effects of drugs, gases, pesticides or microorganisms on cell structure and tissue, and communicate their research findings on various types of diseases to health practitioners, policy makers and the public.  They supervise public health programmes, including statistical analysis, health care planning, surveillance systems and public health improvement.  They plan, administer and evaluate health safety standards and programmes to improve public health, conferring with health departments, industry personnel, physicians and others.  They educate health workers, patients and the public about infectious and communicable diseases, including disease transmission and prevention. Some epidemiologists teach the principles of medicine and medical and laboratory procedures to physicians, residents, students and technicians.

Personal Requirements

  • have excellent research and organisational skills
  • logical, enjoy analysing data
  • good with numbers and able to interpret statistical data
  • have good writing skills to write detailed reports and papers on their research
  • have an inquiring mind

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

Compulsory Subjects: Mathematics, Physical Science 
Recommended subjects: Life Sciences

  • Pass matric with a Bachelor's pass
  • Meet the admission requirements (APS) set by the university
  • All applications for admission to MBChB and Medical degrees are subject to selection.
  • Due to the limited number of spaces available, only a small percentage of applicants are admitted.

What to Study

Degree: most epidemiologists start out first qualifying in medicine, nursing or a related health field and then go on to study epidemiology or health statistics at a graduate level. Many epidemiologists specialise in a particular area of research; for example, communicable diseases or alcoholism.

Postgraduate: to become an epidemiologist one needs at least a masters degree in epidemiology or health statistics. Although it is not essential, some epidemiologists go on to complete PhDs. Wits, for example, offers a MSc in Epidemiology.


  • public health
  • government and environmental agencies
  • hospitals
  • some private research organisations
  • universities, lecturing to students
  • hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities
  • private practice

Further Information

The Epidemiology Society of South Africa - ESSA has become the Public Health Association of South Africa (PHASA)

Getting Started

  • speak to an epidemiologist about this career
  • read up on diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, foot-and-mouth disease, etc
  • improve your computer skills

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