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:
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.
Schooling & School Subjects
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.
The Epidemiology Society of South Africa - ESSA has become the Public Health Association of South Africa (PHASA)